Below the line: "I am a guerrilla fighter..."
Growing in number and influence, are those who leave online comments just cranks - or the real fifth estate?
Frank Fisher, aka MrPikeBishop (pictured), is 50 years old, lives in Macclesfield, works as a software developer, is a Marxist-turned anarchist-turned UKIP-er and likes to think of himself as The Outlaw Josey Wales.
There’s a bit in the old Clint Eastwood film of that name in which Wales is holed up in a ranch house in Texas, besieged and outnumbered by Comanche braves, so he sets out on horseback, agile and fleet, taking the fight to the enemy. “And that’s how I think of myself down below the line,” says Fisher. “A guerrilla fighter.”
Fisher is one of a significant and seemingly growing number of people who comment habitually, perhaps even compulsively, at the foot of online newspaper stories – or “below the line”, to use the parlance of the trade. He has spent up to 12 hours commenting non-stop. This, for him, is not simply venting – it’s important democratic work.
“Below the line is the fifth estate,” he says. “The press was meant to be the fourth estate, holding the state to account, but they have failed to do so because they are so intertwined with the establishment.” He regards the below-the-liners as a voice from outwith the mainstream – an angry voice from the streets, refusing to accept narratives co-authored by government and media.
“Below the line you can be responsive and agile. You can be a little bit like the picadors in a bullfight. You may not bring down the bull but you throw barbs into it, slow it down, divert it, change the story and just kind of broaden the way that things are talked about and the agenda.”
He is by no means alone in his prolific commenting. Every day, on every national newspaper website and widely read blog, as soon as an article goes online it begins to grow a thick crust of dissent, debate, digressions, yelling, poor spelling, stingers, zingers, lols, trolls, inarticulate expressions of rage and horrible, horrible abuse. By the end of the news cycle, the article itself is all but lost, buried beneath this carapace of opinion and outrage.
For an illustration of the libertarian mindset that characterises some commenters, look no further than TheTrueHOOHA, a young man whose 800 postings on the US technology website Ars Technica cover a range of concerns from government and gun control to gaming and girls. He does not stint on provocative language – those who disagree with his view that social security is unnecessary are, he opines, “f***ing retards”.
TheTrueHOOHA stopped posting in 2012 because, one imagines, he had more pressing business. He was, it turns out, the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. It would be ridiculous to suggest that all commenters are potential Snowdens but his particular emphasis on the tensions between technology, privacy and freedom of speech does make him in some ways emblematic of the culture.
In the UK, newspapers receive around 40 million online comments annually. While not all media organisations are able or willing to divulge figures, it does appear that a huge proportion of comment is coming from a relatively tiny number of people.
Detailed statistics are not always available but, anecdotally, it seems that something between a fifth and a half of all comments on newspaper websites are left by as few as five per cent of the total number of commenters, themselves only a small proportion of the total users of the sites. So, who are these people? Why do they do it? And what influence might they be having on public debate?
Peter Bell is 63. He used to run a corporate communications consultancy but gave it up in order to concentrate on what he sees as his new job, albeit one which is unpaid, critiquing articles which, in his view, are hostile to Scottish independence. His usual routine is to rise at six in the morning, sit down in the living room of his home in Perth, at his Acer 17-inch laptop, experience “low-level despair” while browsing the morning news and then put in a good 12 to 16 hours’ commenting shift.
His commitment to independence began when he was a child in Fife and he asked his teacher why, in comparison with England, there was so little detailed information on the Scottish portion of the UK map that hung on the classroom wall. Her reply – “that Scotland wasn’t important enough to be on the map” – made him angry, and he grew up to be a “cybernat”.
He has been named, online, as Cybernat Of The Year, an accolade he regards with amused, ironic pride. It is, for him, a backhanded compliment, an acknowledgement of his modus operandi and dedication.
Cybernat entered the Collins dictionary in 2013, indicative of its widespread use within the fractious independence debate. Cybernats, according to their foes, are abusive obsessives who use social media to attack those who express a belief that Scotland should remain within the United Kingdom. “It’s supposed to be a pejorative but it has backfired on the anti-independence campaign,” says Bell, “because it has, generally, been embraced.”
He comments on the websites of newspapers The Scotsman and The Herald in particular but also on those of London-based and international publications. He believes he provides a “corrective” to what he regards as pro-Union disinformation and propaganda carried in the mainstream media.
“There’s also the question of reach,” he says. “There is more chance of reaching people whose minds are open to change by working through the comments sections of newspapers than by writing a blog.”
Bell sees himself as a man committed to a cause. Others on Twitter see him as “rabid”, “very rude” and “an acid-tongued windbag”. He accepts that online debate can be emotional and bellicose. “Part of the debate is undermining your opponent and making them look stupid,” he says.
“But even if I am being robust, you can be sure it’s calculated. If I am insulting someone, I have thought about that insult and I am doing it for a reason. It is not casual.”
Below the line is not all cut and thrust, though. Commenting forums can function as communities and bring people together. Emily Band, 21, a student living in West Lothian, has made 7,000 comments on Guardian stories since 2010, often picking up errors in science reports. She met her partner Tom, an aspiring astrophysicist and space buff, through the newspaper website.
Reading one another’s comments, it became clear they had a great deal in common and grew fond of the personalites they inferred from the opinions each expressed. They grew closer in technological stages: email, texts, Skype and finally – how low-tech – a face-to-face meeting. Forget through the barricades, this was love below the line.
Band has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and experiences episodes of depression. Having a strong identity online helps keep her sane, she says, on days when she is unable to go out. “Plus,” she explains, “nobody needs to know more than you’re willing to reveal from behind a keyboard, something which is a huge bonus when symptoms would get in the way if we were outside or talking face-to-face.
"Having a way of appearing ‘normal’ is refreshing after having so many restrictions imposed in one way or another by chronic illness.”
But while commenting can sometimes have great personal consequences, its wider significance is in the way it has changed the dynamics of public discourse. “One of the great impacts on journalism has been the flattening of hierarchies,” says Chris Deerin, former head of comment at the Telegraph, now a strategic communications adviser and Daily Mail columnist.
“Previously you would write a column and put it in the newspaper and it was delivered as if you were Moses and this was the tablet from on high. Now, everyone can respond to anything you write. I think that’s really healthy. It’s more of a conversation between the writer and the reader.
"You are aware that there is this rabid army of copy-eating ants that will just pick the bones of your story. That strips away the arrogance. There’s a generosity of spirit required on the part of the writers that wasn’t there before.”
Spiritual generosity is not how Paul Staines sees it. The man behind the political blog Guido Fawkes, himself a former commenter, believes that the value of comment declines as the number increases.
“When I first started out and had a dozen or so regular commenters, they were witty and took time and it was a meaningful community,” he says. “Now that we have 100,000 page views a day, it’s the usual obsessives and nutters.
"One year, 50 people were responsible for half the comments. Just absorb that. Fifty people are responsible for quarter of a million comments. They’re not representative. The people who are most likely to comment are, in general, people who are obsessed and extreme.”
That’s interesting, given that commenters – in their sheer numbers and intensity of viewpoint – are arguably further influencing public opinion and, by extension, political policy. Public attitudes to benefit cuts or immigration might, for instance, be hardened by press coverage of those issues, while that coverage itself takes on an ever tougher tone as it seems to play well with the readers. Politicians with an ear to this mood music then shape policy accordingly, and so it goes on – a vicious circle in every sense.
Does Staines believe, then, that editors adjust the editorial positions of their papers to keep them in line with the sentiments expressed in online comments? “Yes, I do, and they’re idiots for doing that. It’s not so much that it results in a rightwards drift – the same thing happens at The Guardian – but there’s a gravitational pull towards the obsessions of readers.”
This is not mere conjecture. There is scientific evidence that rude and outspokenly negative reader comment can be influential. A 2013 study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that insult-laden comments caused readers to become critical of complex issues described in a neutral article to which the comments were attached – a phenomenon dubbed “the nasty effect”.
This study has been taken extremely seriously by at least one publication – the magazine Popular Science closed down its comments section for fear of skewing public understanding of issues such as climate change. But is it really possible to claim that the daily online outpourings of anger and hostility are shaping the way we think and feel about the great issues of the day?
“I think that’s totally possible. I believe it can be damaging for public opinion, it can be damaging for democracy,” says Proffesor Dominique Brossard, one of the scientists who led the University of Wisconsin-Madison research. “To some extent our study shows that trolls are more than just annoying, they can potentially change the views of readers.”
Ah, trolls. The catch-all term for those who post abusive comments and threats and who get their kicks from starting fights online. It is a word that has come to prominence lately thanks to several high-profile cases, including that of the journalist and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez whose campaign to ensure historically prominent women appeared on banknotes led to her being targeted by Twitter users Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo. Their menacing tweets, threatening rape and murder, resulted in prison sentences.
That, though, is at the extreme end. More typical is a constant thrumming low-level coarseness online. A recent report by the World Editors Forum, based on discussions with 104 media organisations across 63 countries, found that moderators of newspaper websites delete, on average, 11 per cent of all posted comments because they are judged to be offensive. In the UK, that would mean more than four million comments each year that contain hate speech, bad language and so on.
“I wanted to set up an online condolence book for Mandela,” says one senior editor, wearily, “but was talked out of it by the dotcom team because they’d spent a whole morning deleting racist comments from stories about him.”
This paints a rather bleak picture of human behaviour when let loose in the disinhibiting and anonymous online environment. Yet there are those who believe there can be honour among trolls. Jennifer Purcell (not her real name) is a troll, or at least she has been called that many times, and although the name upset her at first she now feels it is not an entirely negative identity.
She is a professional woman in her 40s in London, and a regular commenter on newspaper websites. She is an “anti-feminist” interested in gender issues and has been banned and blocked online by more than 100 people and groups. She believes there is a distinction between personal abuse and strong criticism, and that her own commenting falls into the latter.
“Calling someone a troll dehumanises people and is a way of dismissing valid opinions and criticisms,” she says. “Journalists talk about below the line as this cesspit where undesirables hang out. I find that offensive, as some of the comments are more intelligent than the original article – but it also makes me feel a kind of pride and defiance.
"I can use the troll identity to come up from below and challenge powerful people. I feel I can change the mood around a topic, and if being combative is having an effect then it’s worth it.”
For her, for Frank Fisher, for Peter Bell and all the rest, whether trolls or cybernats or online outlaws, comment is, on a basic human level, about being heard.
“You’re not just screaming into the void,” Purcell continues. “It’s like having a voice in the national media. I feel very glad that I’ve survived and I’m still on the internet. Journalists are not the only ones with a platform any more.”
Photographs: Stuart Wood
Words: Peter Ross