The first time I found myself on the receiving end of a keyboard warrior, I was distraught. And, let’s face it: it was nothing.
I was in the second month of an internship with The Local Germany when they sent me out onto the streets of Berlin with my notebook and Dictaphone. It was the first time I’d done physical interviews in German, and I was proud to pull it off. The story went up, and when I noticed people were commenting, I eagerly scrolled through to see what they thought.
“”The Local” went to the streets of Berlin talking to people,” one anonymous commenter scoffed. “Hehe. REALITY: a lazy guy at The Local looked through the window and yes it’s too hot outside… so let’s create some fake interviews … I wonder how long this message will last until The Local’s lazy employee gets it deleted. And they call themselves journalists. That’s a lack of respect.”
I was fuming. How dare someone just blurt out their blatantly ill-informed assumptions on an open forum, insulting both me and the work I’m doing and making the company look bad?! But, of course, if I wanted to stay professional there wasn’t much I could do about it. Except send furious screenshots to Mum and Dad, and silently seethe at my desk for the rest of the day.
This wasn’t online hate speech. I mean, what had the guy done? He’d insulted my journalistic integrity, for sure. He’d made me feel arsey, defensive and desperate to prove him wrong. But in terms of personal attacks, this barely even registers on the scale. However, the thing that really got to me was this: that other people might read his comments and take them for true. “It’s just so annoying because he’s completely, utterly wrong, and there’s nothing I can say,” I moaned to my parents. “So people will probably believe him…”
And, here’s where we start to wade into a real debate.
In this case, my hurt feelings were the only thing at stake. But, comments often appear that target others in much more brutal ways. Comments that include hate speech.
Hate speech is a pretty simple thing, according to UK dictionary definitions. “Public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation” is how Cambridge Dictionaries define it.
So is online hate speech illegal? Well, sometimes. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 states: “A person who publishes or distributes written material which is threatening is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.”
However, not all types of hate speech are forbidden. “Nothing in this Part […] prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions,” the Act later states.
So basically, you’re within your rights as a UK citizen to publicly hate something. You can verbally insult and abuse others, as long as 1. You don’t threaten anybody and 2. You don’t intend to stir up hatred in other people.
But here’s the thing: how do you monitor who’s trying to incite hatred? As far as I’m concerned, anybody who takes their opinion to a public forum wants to ignite this opinion in other people. If you’re preaching what you truly think is right, then why wouldn’t you want others to adopt your views? If someone posts hateful comments on a public news story, they almost definitely want to spread this hate. And discrimination thrives as a result.
So where does the publication stand in these cases? Do they allow all technically legal comments, or do they decide that it’s their responsibility to prevent hateful views from spreading and possibly causing violence and discrimination?
The stand-off between upholding freedom of speech and blocking hate speech is something publications like The Local are forced to navigate on a daily basis.
A Code of Conduct published on site lists the kinds of comments that are prohibited. Amongst others, comments that are “offensive and promote racism, prejudice, hatred or physical harm” just aren’t allowed. Neither are comments which “encourage harassment of another individual or group.”
When someone crosses the line, other users can flag the comments. It’s then a moderator’s job to take a look and delete things if necessary. But, for a small team, the job can become overwhelming. For this reason, The Local have decided to disable comments on certain stories – in particular, those about Europe’s current refugee crisis.
It’s become almost second nature now, leaving the “allow comments” box unticked when I’m uploading a story about refugees. Of course, it’s caused outrage among readers – and unable to vent frustration where they really want to, users often take to the comment sections of other stories to complain.
“Why is the comment section enabled on this trite topic but closed on articles of any substance?” asked one user underneath an unrelated story last month. “Because this journal only allows freedom of speech as long as we are politically correct and don’t say unpopular truths,” came the immediate answer from another user.
Well, not entirely.
In an ideal world, publications would always allow comments, upholding freedom of speech while also ensuring that nothing harmful or dangerous makes its way onto their forums. But, in reality, that’s not always possible.
The Local knows all too well the kind of discriminatory comments stories about refugees attract – and given that their main task is to provide accurate and up-to-date news, the time it would take to moderate these comments is huge. It’s just not feasible.
Forced to choose between annoying a few people who want to conveniently have their say, and potentially leaving hateful and dangerously influential comments unmoderated, what would you choose? I say conveniently because – of course – all readers can still hate to their heart’s content on personal blogs and social media.
As one of The Local‘s team once told me, they’re not stopping people sharing their thoughts. They’re just saying: “you can’t come into our house and yell extremities.” And I think I’m with them on that one.