Daddy, what did you do in the great online war?
When it comes to the negativity and hatred that permeates online, we all have a role to play. We should talk to our children about being kind and respectful at all times, we should follow that advice ourselves and consider, when our team plays poorly and we’re angry with the manager or a player, or we disagree with someone who has popped up on our Twitter feed, what can we do to make this a more positive place. Do we work hard to not “other” people? Or are we one of those people that thinks that others are fair game if they come from the other side of the political divide or support an opposition football team?
Where a huge responsibility exists is those with influence and I have written before about the “lad” banter merchants and football’s own responsibility to help us towards a kinder, more tolerant online environment but another important part of our society, and a key player in the great online war, are the press. Newspapers in the UK have (rightly) decried the danger that comes from the unregulated nature of social media. The amount of lies, particularly during these Covid times, that are allowed to exist unchallenged on social media, and with dangerous effects, is frightening. I worry greatly that our next generation is coming through and getting it's information and arguments from social media and this article in Wired is an extraordinary exploration of how even the craziest and most dangerous conspiracy theories are getting through to our teens. I would urge any parent to talk to their young person about the difference between unregulated social media and the regulated media where, although our press is far from perfect (and my experience in suing them on behalf of clients gives me insight into that), the press is nevertheless regulated and stories must be checked and founded in fact. The press in this country remains influential and has a crucial role and that role, in my view, extends to working towards a kinder society.
The role of the tabloid media in the tragic demise of Caroline Flack has already been laid bare. The tsunami she must have felt from those constant headlines and social media reaction is unimaginable.
When certain elements of the press joined the social media boycott on the May Day Bank Holiday there were those, including my fellow director Fraser Franks, who pointed out the irony of the position being taken. Having suffered his own treatment from The Sun in the past, it was understandable that he would pick up on the red top's proclaimed moral stance:
And our colleague Leigh, two years ago: in the darkest early days of suffering an iCloud hack which resulted in intimate images being leaked online, was brought to the brink when she was informed that a tabloid newspaper was planning to publish a story about the leak. The newspaper, of course, would have talked about a "sympathetic" piece but national media coverage of the hack and the leak has one impact and one impact only - that is to titillate its readers and advertise the existence of these stolen images on the internet. That results in more people finding, seeing and sharing the images. Mercifully, after some legal intervention, the newspaper decided not to name Leigh. A decision that might have saved her life. Others haven't been so lucky though. The press glorying in telling us that stars such as Jennifer Lawrence and Miley Cyrus had had their iClouds hacked and intimate pictures leaked would have vastly increased the clamour of perverts seeking to see and share the images online.
One notable newspaper absentee in the May Day boycott was the Daily Mail. On this occasion they spared us hypocrisy. For the Mail to decry internet trolling and hatred would have been for them to attack their own business model. Their website, powered by celebrity titillation, has long been the most read English-language newspaper on the internet. One significant secret of its success is the same recipe used by Facebook and Twitter - outrage. Making its readers angry enough (usually with Meghan Markle) to click on their stories is the challenge they set themselves. Once those readers are at the article, and frothing at the mouth, they will then commit their own sense of anger to print in the comments section. The level of angry engagement on the Mail Online is extraordinary and it is what drives such large online revenues for the Mail. Keeping readers on their website angrily shouting at each other, or the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, keeps their traffic figures high and their advertising revenues commensurately impressive.
But at what price to civilised discourse?
In recent weeks a client of mine, a public figure, asked me: "What can we do about this Daily Mail article?". I took a look - it was a positive article about a recent project he was involved in. I was confused until he said: "Look at the comments". The problem wasn't that he was upset by them - like Leigh he's become used to the bile online - but that his mum and his wife read them and are upset by them. Leigh talks about patrolling her Instagram posts to remove sexualised comments, not necessarily to protect herself now, but because she wants to shield young women and girls from this sort of revolting content. By spewing this unlawful hatred they are contributing to Instagram being an unsafe place for young women. The Mail's comments section is no different.
As a rule, I don't read the Mail Online unless it is for professional purposes and I only venture onto the comments section for the same reason. So, when I did an interview with The i Paper's Sam Cunningham about vile messages sent to female athletes on social media and when the Mail decided to copy and paste Sam's article and my quotes, I naturally read their version ...... and then the comments ......
Even an article about vile comments and messages is not safe from vile comments and messages and, whilst these boorish sexist slurs, may not be as vulgar and disgusting as the messages that I was talking to Sam about it does go to show that we are a long long way away from the internet being a pleasant place to be.
So, will the press change? Will they take a more moral approach? Have they learned from Caroline Flack? Well, I believe in forgiveness and redemption, so I am tempted to welcome The Sun's decision to join the boycott ... but I'm realistic. I'm reminded of a phrase I have so often used on weekends when I have been working hard to keep my client's private lives out of The Sun. When I wake up on the Sunday morning, having persuaded The Sun to leave my client alone, I will often check their website and say to myself "Let's see whose life they have ruined this weekend".
While there remains a commercial market in hatred and outrage, whether on a tabloid website or a social media site, nothing will change unless change is forced.