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  • News

COMMENT: Vile social media trolls are out of control

Monday, 30th October, 2017 7:57am

Story by Tony McCullagh
COMMENT: Vile social media trolls are out of control

Abusive online comments can hurt. PHOTO: BIGSTOCK

COMMENT: Vile social media trolls are out of control

Abusive online comments can hurt. PHOTO: BIGSTOCK

THERE was a time when readers’ letters formed a vital part of every newspaper. While these pages can still be found in some publications, the humble letter to the editor has become something of a dying tradition since the explosion of social media in recent years.

There was a time when an offended reader had to handwrite or type a missive to a newspaper and then patiently wait for the next publication date to find out if their submission had made it past the editor’s desk. Seeing your letter in print was something of a validation of your opinions; a small but important victory for free speech and democracy.

However, a reader’s right-to-reply was never absolute and a letter was subject to rigorous vetting by an editor to ensure it was not libellous or likely to cause grave offence. Letters were a valuable way of allowing a newspaper to gauge the attitudes and demographics of its readership while also providing interesting – and often highly entertaining – content.

At one stage, this local newspaper had enough readers’ letters submitted to fill two pages every week. Many of our contributors were regulars who rarely failed to respond to a story that had appeared in a recent edition. In deciding which ones to publish, we had a few basic rules: no anonymous letters were allowed; a phone number had to be provided for verification purposes; and no racist, vulgar or potentially defamatory comment would be considered.

Unfortunately, these same checks and balances don’t seem to apply to the modern, online equivalent of the letters page – the comments sections of news sites and social media platforms. 

A friend of mine was recently shocked when an online story she featured in attracted some poisonous, disgusting and ignorant comments. She was reassured by her supporters that the comments section of this otherwise reputable news page was widely considered to be the “cesspool” of the internet. After a cursory glance through the comments thread on the story, it was hard to conclude otherwise.

Similarly, the release of Ibraham Halawa from an Egyptian prison has provided us with a snapshot of the vile racism that exists in this country. Some of the comments about him would never see the light of day in a printed newspaper or magazine, yet the haters and anonymous keyboard warriors can operate in what they believe is one big free-for-all; a seemingly libel-free zone without consequences. In an era where instant gratification has become the norm, the online trolls can spew out their venom within seconds of a story appearing in their Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds. 

The thought of sharing the same island with some of these people is, quite frankly, terrifying.

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