The New Wild West: Twitter And Below The Line

My favourite part of 2018 is seeing people be shocked that something abhorrent is still happening in 2018. Whether disability discrimination, misogyny, homophobia or racism, 2018 has been a reminder that ideas that many believed had been consigned to the past are very much alive. There are some that disagree with the view that I just presented and would say that this is a time of tolerance and togetherness. For those people, I would like you take my hand and journey with me through the new wild west: the comments section of websites and Twitter.

Lets look at the BBC, that bastion of “Britishness” and start with an article that was published yesterday titled, “World Cup 2018: England have ‘plan in place’ if players are racially abused”. User Madeleine gave a clue on how she thought this might go early on:


Like the patron who sees trouble approaching in the pub of an old Western and sidles away before the carnage starts, Madeleine recognises that this topic has the potential to start trouble.


This is one of my favourite comments. It reduces the topic of racist abuse to ‘people say some silly things’. Like any great artist, Supersmart85 paints a picture – and what a picture it is! His ‘Mrs’ laughs and he says her mother looks like a cheap hooker, an entirely reasonable response, I am sure we all agree, and then suggests that there is ‘no harm done’. All that was needed was a few nights on the sofa. No one element of that response stands out by itself, but put together? A masterpiece.

Supersmart85 is a brilliant artist, but he is not as good as the next entry.


I feel like I need a telestrator to fully break down the majesty of this post. Soccer_mane’s use of non-sequiturs to link his comment is magical. Did you notice the link that is made between the tattoo on his leg and booing? Or the insinuation in the second sentence that racism will be used as an excuse for poor performance? You don’t just create art like that. It takes planning, talent and an eye for detail that most mortals lack. The best comment on a BBC comment thread though is the one below.


There are many, many examples of comments being removed and I include this one to highlight how brilliant the other comments were. Any old idiot can write something offensive. The craft lies in being able to create something offensive and within the rules. You know, acceptable offence.

Ok we’ll move to The Guardian. They, like many sites, tend not to leave comment sections for topics that they believe will generate offensive comments. They also have community standards, so anything deemed overly offensive will be removed by their team of moderators. And yet…


What do you think this comment is a response to? If you guessed sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, you are incorrect. It’s about abortion. 10 points to those that got that one.

I love the game “Red Dead Redemption”. It is a game set at a time when the stereotypical Wild West was dying. The gun-slinging cowboy protagonist is killed by the Bureau of Investigation that are tasked with wiping away the last vestiges of the kind of lawless behaviour that the protagonist represents. I mention this game because it works well as a metaphor for the difficulty in legislating the kind of comments that are made below the line. Remove them from news sites and they migrate to Twitter:

The protagonist is violently killed. His son who sees it ends up killing the man that killed his father. Whilst the Old West might be dying, the violence that was its hallmark continues. It is the same with these comments.

Asking for them to be moderated is fine, but moderation doesn’t stop the way people think. As the above tweet highlights, those that are offensive are often politically minded and vote. It wasn’t inherently racist to vote Brexit or Trump, but I will point out that the racist voice was heard a lot more than those that had other concerns. You can be disgusted at the treatment that Leslie Jones received, but I would bet that many who abused her wanted to make America great again. And several months later…


Quick aside: I have only ever met one racist. I have never met a sexist. What I mean by that is I have never met anyone who has said to me, “Hi my name is Alex and I’m a racist”, or “Hi, I’m Sam and I’m really sexist”. I’m willing to bet that you don’t, either. It’s rare to find someone that espouses a view that might be considered venomous that will describe that view as such. This is because many of us (I am guilty of this, as much as I try not to be) live in echo chambers, surrounding ourselves with people that have similar views, which in turn creates a permission structure for us to say things that go unchallenged. It is much easier to castigate someone for a below the line comment or tweet than it is to do the same to a family member. How often do we passively accept an offensive comment from a loved one because “that’s just who they are” or “I don’t want to spoil a good time”? It can be hard to confront people you care about for views they have that don’t align with yours. And I’m not saying that you have to. I am suggesting that if you don’t, you can’t be surprised when an election or referendum doesn’t go the way you want. Don’t spend your time debating trolls online. Unless you are the biggest goat, they will devour you. Instead talk to the people in your life that you love. It’s more pleasant and might actually result in change you can believe in.





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