The social media dilemma

While some people enjoy the rough and tumble of the public bar, others are more suited to the relative safety of the saloon. So when the two groups meet on social media, it is sure to cause upset – but Horace Camp believes censorship is not the solution

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One of the delights of this excellent publication is its small-c conservatism, which somehow manages in an ever-changing world to hold on to its core values and traditions.

I will be devastated if the death announcements are ever removed because after the front-page headline this is my next go-to piece and, sadly, names I recognise are coming up more frequently these days.

But the Press is not completely rooted in its glorious past but it also ensures that, among the tired, old regular voices, new young and fresh ones can also be heard. And so it has been this week, when the new-to-us voice of Daisy Doardo has found a place among the mostly pale, male and stale regulars.

You will recall that her piece was back to back with Deputy St Pier’s and both wrote about the online abuse they have suffered. Their pieces were remarkably different, not in the levels of abuse they have received but in how they reacted to them. Probably Gavin’s response was more in line with my thoughts about dealing with online abuse than Daisy’s.

It is not my intention, however, to review or respond to either of their columns. Rather, I want to give a few reflections on my time as an administrator of the very popular local Facebook forum known as Guernsey People Have Your Say.

First, a few facts. The group has more than 18,500 members, of whom 15,000 give their location as Guernsey. Over 55% of members are women, the majority of members are under 54 and the single largest demographic are the 25-34s. The 18-24s significantly outnumber the over-65s. Around 15,000 of the members are classified by Facebook as ‘active’ on a weekly basis.

Our diverse small team of administrators attempts to keep the group in order without imposing a strong editorial hand and keeping as many voices heard as possible. On Facebook there are ‘posts’ and ‘comments’. Posts are the initial expression of an opinion and comments are the reactions the post triggers. On GPHYS, an administrator has to approve a post but all comments are published immediately with no vetting.

I say no vetting, but we do use tools provided by Facebook which can filter comments for key words and, if necessary, seek admin approval before publication. We mostly use that tool to screen for foul language. There are other tools, but we have found them to be unreliable and while they will block innocent posts they often let through some right howlers.

Facebook also monitors the group quality using bots and algorithms, with the threat that failing to maintain quality standards will lead to closure. Sounds good, but 90% at least of the comments flagged by FB are as pure as the driven snow and we admins scratch our heads to get to the bottom of what triggered it.

Our best form of defence against unsuitable comments are reports by members. Sadly members are more likely to moan about bad comments rather than report them and given the volume of comments not all can be picked up in a timely manner by admins.

But here’s the rub. Just what is online abuse? Threats of death and or violence, certainly. Libellous statements, certainly. Foul-mouthed tirades against an individual, for sure. There are a few other certainties, but mostly the rest of it is a matter of opinion. Often we administrators have different opinions and putting the suitability of posts to the vote is not uncommon.

Some people take offence more easily than others. And some people have a very low bar when it comes to seeing hate in posts and comments. In the old days it was easier to keep the two groups apart. The rough, foul-mouthed and grubby working class in the public bar quaffing pints and telling dirty jokes and the vicar sipping sherry with the maiden aunts of the parish in the saloon. And never the twain shall meet.

But what to do when the public and saloon bars are knocked into one? Impose a dress code and bar clients for bad language? Or allow the maiden aunts to vet just who can and who cannot attend the establishment?

That’s the social media dilemma. If you want to enter a safe place, choose the saloon. Guernsey Days Gone By would be a lovely example of safe surfing. Enter Guernsey People Have Your Say and be ready for the rough and tumble of the public bar, where much is tolerated but definitely anyone who bites, kicks or punches below the belt will be punished, albeit after the fact.

I’m not a big fan of the cancel culture, nor do I enjoy denying anyone a public voice, even if they are shouting that they don’t agree with me. And of course on social media if an individual’s comments bother you, then mute or block them and you never have to engage with them again.

I recall once receiving a great deal of unwanted abuse for innocently making reference to the man in charge of Germany during the Second World War. If I mention his name online then Facebook will probably ban me for hate speech. It would be the same if I ever mentioned the name of my beloved pet black cat that I had as a boy.

The rules for entering the world of social media are the same as entering the real world. You must take care and remember there are bad people out there. Even elected representatives of the people can be social media trolls. But the answer isn’t to cancel individuals because of perceived offence. In the public bar, what would make your aunt faint in the saloon is only – I dare not say banter – emphatic punctuation.

I certainly get my share of SM pushback but I’m more often offended by poor spelling and grammar than insults. However, in no way would I advocate some minimum standard of written English before bestowing membership of GPHYS on a new supplicant.

In short, a death threat is unacceptable and action should be taken against the perpetrator. But rolling your eyes and commenting caustically when a bleeding heart liberal espouses some tear-jerker story relevant to their campaign is not necessarily abuse – it could be an opinion.

Probably some of you are rolling your eyes now and penning some caustic comment on my last statement. Am I wrong?

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