Nil By Mouse: Monitoring Online Sectarianism

social media energise 2.0In 2005, Jack McConnell labelled sectarianism and religious bigotry, “Scotland’s secret shame”. In 2011, a number of recent incidents suggest that sectarianism still widely exists in Scotland and has become a more acute problem.

Since 2005 there has been a revolution in how we (as a society) use the Internet. More people are posting and sharing messages on social networks than are sending emails. Social media is the number one use of the Internet. Online society reflects wider society in many ways, including the expression of ‘hate’ and sectarianism.

In a recent interview (see video below), Alex Salmond strongly states his intention to eradicate sectarianism from Scottish football terraces and to begin a zero tolerance campaign targeting the ‘peddlers of hate’ on the Internet. For those in any doubt as to the political will behind this rhetoric, Salmond states unequivocally – “it will happen”.

Social Media Monitoring Tools make it easier than ever before to identify who is saying what, where on the Internet. Whilst these tools are more traditionally employed to monitor consumers of brand products they can be readily applied to the authors of religious hatred (helping to identify both the perpetrators and the platforms).

Whilst this media monitoring approach – focusing on the “peddlers of hate” – is laudable, it also asks a number of questions:

(a) How is online “hate” or sectarianism defined?
(b) Which messages are deemed unacceptable?
(c) Who will monitor these interactions?
(d) What are the implications from posting an unacceptable message?
(e) Is there a strategy or response policy governing actions taken?
(f) What constitutes success in terms of any monitoring initiative?

Further rumination raises another critical question. By focusing on a minority (the ‘peddlers of hate’) are we precluding the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the issue? Should we also be attempting to answer the following:

(a) How widespread is online hate and sectarianism?
(b) Is there a wider “culture” of acceptance that propagates the extremes (and what does it look like online)?
(c) what are the motivations and behaviours of individuals that (actively and passively) participate in communities where online hate is expressed?
(d) What role does the online community and the group dynamic play in the creation of ‘extremists’?

In order to gain this type of understanding we must look wider than simply monitoring messages, we must employ techniques like Netnography. Netnography is ethnography adapted to the study of online communities. Used effectively, netnography is a flexible and unobtrusive method through which to study and understand the language, symbols, meanings and motivations of particular online communities and cultures (Kovinets, 2002).

Most would agree that as a nation Scotland needs to act swiftly and effectively. However, if we set our objectives too narrow, there is a real danger that our results become the online equivalent of a few life bans meted out in a capacity crowd of football supporters. It is hoped that the Scottish Government look deeper at the issues surrounding online sectarianism and choose the best long-term approach to monitoring and understanding these issues in an online environment.

As usual, comments and feedback very welcome

Alan

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About Alan Stevenson

Over the last fifteen years I have split my time almost equally between Developing Digital strategies for public and private sector clients and helping organisations visualise, specify, plan and optimise technology-based solutions within their organisation.
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21 Responses to Nil By Mouse: Monitoring Online Sectarianism

  1. Alan

    Thank you for this very interesting and highly topical post which I think makes an important contribution to the discussion on how to tackle online sectarianism in Scotland.

    We are hearing a lot of tough talking just now but whether there is a political will to implement tough measures remains to be seen.

    Your post makes two things very clear:

    1. Identify and Act: It is now very easy to identify the ‘peddlers of online hate’. As you correctly point out, we now have access to a wide range of social media monitoring tools for doing this – it is not ‘rocket science’ and is easy to do if resourced properly. Mr Salmond says in the video that we ‘now have the technology to do this’. It would be very interesting to find out what technology and approach is being used.

    2. Knowledge and Understanding: I agree totally that a netnography approach could deliver a much deeper level of insight and understanding of this problem. I am sure that there are netnography experts in our Universities in Scotland who would be only too happy to share their expertise with us.

    I regularly monitor various online football forums and would make two very quick comments in addition to the above:

    1. It would be totally wrong to classify everyone posting online as a ‘bigot’. I know of a large number of fanzine forums/pages where the quality of content is exceptionally good – in many cases of a higher standard than can be found in most tabloids. This begs two further questions a) is there an opportunity for crowdsourcing help in this area i.e. working with the legitimate forums to change ‘mindsets’ b) given the sensationalism of many tabloid headlines, should they come under the same scrutiny as the Internet?

    2. The most frequent and disgusting examples of online hatred that I come across can best be described as ‘Ned Sectarianism’. This raises other important issues regarding Scottish society which should also be part of this debate.

    Would be very interested in thoughts re next steps in this area. Should we pull a team of netnography/social media experts together to discuss?

    Take care and thanks again for your very interesting post.

    Jim H

  2. The Rangers Seal says:

    Interesting as the subject matter may be, I would have a few reservations about any study of online sectarianism. First of all, as you’ve already admitted, it is an incredibly difficult phenomenon to define. This is partly because we have only the fuzziest definition in law as to what constitutes sectarian behaviour. With this in mind I would drop the sectarian element altogether and make this all about studying the hatred that permeates so many online fan forums. After all, footballing allegiance itself can very broadly be described as a form of sectarianism and we’re not advocating the arrest and imprisonment of all football fans. By focusing on fan hatred it also casts the net wider, and gives you a broader set of test cases which can only improve the accuracy and usefulness of any findings. Dr Hamill’s observations on what he describes as “ned sectarianism” are, in my opinion, the thin end of this particular wedge. Without conducting any research it is obviously impossible to be certain, but I would suggest that the type of people who indulge in the cruder forms of online bigotry are from poor socio-economic backgrounds. I would also suggest that the more worrying problem is the participation in this behaviour by educated, socially mobile people. This has the far more insidious effect of legitimising the extreme views expressed on online fan forums. The “ned sectarianism” can be attributed to blind ignorance; the “middle class bigot” phenomenon is far more complex and points towards more fundamental problems.

    I can only wish you good luck. It’s a thorny issue and one that may not be so easy to distil into a coherent study. Whatever your findings, I will await them with interest.

    • The Rangers Seal says:

      One small point. Dr. Hamill expressed a desire to keep Brian McNally of The Mirror “in the loop” Re: the set up of a group of interested individuals to discuss these issues. My experience of Mr McNally leads me to the conclusion that his input would seriously jeopardise the validity and credibility of your work. I would recommend a look back through the past week of his Twitter feed before asking for his involvement. I can only assume this was an oversight on Dr. Hamill’s part.

      http://www.twitter.com/McNallyMirror

    • Rangers Seal – thank you for taking the time to post your very thoughtful comments about the recent ‘Nil by Mouse’ post – much appreciated.

      I would probably agree with everything you say. Yes the concept of online sectarianism has never been clearly defined and this does indeed make it very difficult to study the problem. However, I think we would both agree that this makes research in this area more rather than less important. The research itself should lead to a better understadning of the issue and that was really the point of Alan’s original post.

      We seem to be in a position now where a major strand of Goverment policy in this area is to crack down on Internet sectarianism but this has never been clearly defined as you correctly point out. Mr Salmond also comments on eradicating the ‘peddlers of online hate’. Is hate and sectarianism the same thing? Maybe future research in this area should be broadened out as you suggest.

      Point noted about the ‘middle class’ bigot and the more fundamental issues this raises. Again, detailed netnography research would shed considerable insight into this.

      Just a point of clarification on your last comment about ‘awaiting the results of our research with interest’. We have not yet committed to doing detailed research in this area. One of the aims of the original post was to test the level of interest in doing this. Early feedback suggests that there could be a very high level of enthusiasm for moving forward in this area – but we will need help to do it – see my other comment below……

      Thanks again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to comment – much appreciated.

      Take care

      Jim H

      • ps – as stated above, i agree with almost everything in your first reply. Not so sure about your second comment though.

        For this to work to succeed, we need to consult with and involve a very wide spectrum of individuals – academics, goverment, journalists, fans, the clubs, netnography experts, police etc etc etc. – individuals from both sides of the divide and none. This is certainly our intention and we will be keeping anyone who expresses an interest in our work ‘in the loop’. We would probably see ourselves as facilitating a ‘crowdsourced’ research effort in this area rather than doing it all ourselves.

        Asking Brian McNally if he would like to be ‘kept in the loop’ was not an oversight on my part. I see nothing in his tweets that would jeopordize the validity or credibility of our work.

        Over the weekend, i will be contacting many other people to see if they are at all interested in any future research in this area. This would obviously include yourself and colleagues.

        Thanks again for taking the time to respond. Hopefully, we can all try to improve things.

        Take care

        Jim H

      • The Rangers Seal says:

        Hi Jim,

        I appreciate you taking the time to reply.

        I think my point regarding “sectarianism” v “hatred” is simply that in many cases they are indistinguishable from one another. When we talk about “sectarianism” what we are generally discussing is religious bigotry. My point is simply that the religious element of football-related hatred isn’t where any research should begin and end. I’d argue that “Internet-based football-related extremism” better defines the problem. I suspect I may be preaching to the converted (no pun intended), but felt the distinction was worth pointing out.

        I appreciate that there is no commitment to conducting research at this point. Even if no such research materialises the discourse is still worthwhile, and anything productive to emerge from it is a positive step.

        I can certainly understand asking for Mr McNally’s involvement if, as suggested, you are looking for individuals from “both sides of the divide”. This is the category into which I believe he falls and your clarification is appreciated. I would of course be happy to be part of the broader consultation process – under the heading “fans” you understand.

        All the best.

      • johndcgow says:

        Simply asking why Brian McNally has never condemned pro-IRA songs – despite being asked numerous times why he does not – might help the point Rangers Seal was trying to make.

        That is quite a feat in all his tweets and articles about the Old Firm and bigotry.

        Asking him direct questions on support for Republicanism and the IRA may be helpful.

      • John

        Thank you for your comment.

        In my reply to Rangers Seal, I stated that we would hope to consult a wide range of people and organisations on this issue to see if there was the basis for a consensus moving forward. He/she seemed to accept this in principle.

        The original ‘Nil by Mouse’ post was really about the role that social media monitoring tools and netnography could play in the Scottish Governement’s stated policy of ‘eradicating online sectarianism’ – indeed, it would show whether the problem of online sectarianism was as serious as the goverment makes it out to be OR just a PR scapegoat.

        Given that Energise is a social media company, and our blog is about social media, I do not think that it is our role to question anyone on their political or religious views.

        We are keen on having a serious discussion about how social media monitoring tools/netnography can help/or not as the case may be and i would welcome your thoughts on this.

        Take care and thank you for your interest in what we are trying to achieve.

        ps – just visited your blog – some good posts there. Happy to keep you in the ‘loop’ if progress is made in what we are doing.

        Jim H

  3. Thanks TRS. Points noted. Will certainly keep you in the loop on this. Have you clicked to receive an email alert when this section of the blog is updated – or would you prefer me to keep you up-to-date another way.

    Have a good weekend.

    Take care

    Jim H

  4. We might soon have a better idea how the Scottish Government will define the ‘problem’.

    According to the BBC, new legislation to tackle sectarianism is to be put before the Scottish cabinet next week. The plans could see the maximum jail term for sectarian hate crimes rise from six months to five years. As part of this, ‘online postings expressing religious hatred or death threats would also become an indictable offence’.

    Clarity in the definition of online ‘religious hate’ will be required to agree the key words and phrases to be used in social media monitoring of the situation.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-13469005?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

    Take care

    Jim H

    • The Rangers Seal says:

      Well, that’s a start. It does puzzle me that in 2011 we are still making the distinction between religious or racially motivated hate crimes and plain old hate crimes. Is one really worse than the other? In a footballing context, is “Big Jock Knew” more acceptable than “The Billy Boys”? Is “Ooh Aah Up The Ra” better than “Roamin’ In The Gloamin'”? Because only two of these four would be considered to be sectarian in nature, despite all four being an affront to any decent human being.

  5. Patrick McGuire says:

    Although the police have arrested a few people for online hate crimes related to football, these represent a tiny percentage of the incidents on the web. This has led to fans forming posses (or crowd-sourcing justice) to expose the culprits in other ways. This could increase the number of prosecutions, but has downsides.

    Although this is often done in a responsible way, I think that when carried out more widely, any method that doesn’t involve the police will be dangerous. There is always the danger of vigilantes publishing addresses, which is wrong if the person is guilty and the address is correct, and even more wrong if mistakes are made. Similarly there has been the naming and shaming of people who turn out to be children, which is perhaps not desirable. It also likely that this approach would soon lead to a slew of tit-for-tat vexatious allegations which the police would ignore.

    So the question is, how could the zeal of the masses be harnessed to allow the police to make much larger inroads into this problem?

    I think there there should be a web interface where people can register, and be background-checked by the police. The police can then work out how many allegations they can handle in a week and set a capacity for how many allegations can be made by each user. Initially these would be spread equally over all the registered users, but the police can rate the quality of allegation so that those who do well (in terms of seriousness of allegation and evidence provided) are allowed to make more allegations, and others fewer allegations.

    The police would have to provide clear guidelines on what they wanted to be told about, and the kind of evidence that should, and shouldn’t, be gathered. the total capacity for allegations would also be a measurement of how seriously the police are taking the problem.

    Ideally, the web interface would all people to enter URLs and then the police application would screenscrape a copy of the pages immediately as evidence so it’s easy for the user, and the user can’t photoshop a screencapture. however, the need to log-in may make this difficult in practice.

    It would be important to have some kind of feedback loop to “users” so that they know their allegations are being acted on, and ideally leading to convictions. If it takes 6 months for anything beyond a nominal notification to make it back to the user, they will think they are wasting their time.

  6. Thanks Patrick for taking the time to post your very interesting observations.

    I would welcome feedback and comment from others on your post.

    Would this approach work?

    My own view is that your suggestions are certainly worth thinking about as a potential way forward…. utilising the ‘power of the crowd’ but in an agreed and controlled way.

    What do others think?

    Thanks again.

    Jim H

  7. The Rangers Seal says:

    Does anyone contributing here have an opinion on the proposed “Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) ” bill currently being fast-tracked through Holyrood?

    The definitions covered by the bill can be found here: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2011/06/17085318

    In my opinion this bill has not been clearly thought through. There is some very diplomatic language at play here. Not only does it criminalise sectarian or religious hatred, but it adds “behaviour which would be offensive to any reasonable person”. This is an astonishing sentence to read in what will form the basis of a law if and when it is ratified. On a positive note, it would mean the criminalising of IRA chanting (under the banner “offensive behaviour”, pulling the rug from under the hatemongers who claim to be making a political statement), but it also criminalises the language of football rivalry. This is the real flaw in this bill. In a more general sense it concerns me that in the second decade of the 21st century we are STILL making a distinction between “hatred” and “religious hatred”. Religion and religious belief has for too long enjoyed a protected status. It is time to start eradicating hatred as a whole rather than particular varieties of it. When we start doing that then we can truly say we’re getting somewhere. Until then we’re just pandering to the zealots on both sides.

  8. TRS – thanks for taking the time to post… much appreciated. Busy day today with workshops etc so will reply this evening/tomorrow at the latest.

    Take care

    Jim H

  9. TRS

    Thanks again for taking the time to post – much appreciated.

    I agree with you that there are definition aspects of this legislation which have not been fully thought through and it will be very interesting to see how it is applied in practice. However, given that this is a social media blog, I don’t know if many of our readers would have strong opinions one way or the other; or would be that interested in debating definition aspects.

    I think the original post by Alan Stevenson was intended to stimulate debate on whether social media could be harnessed to support the Government’s stated objective of ‘eradicating sectarianism from Scottish football terraces and to begin a zero tolerance campaign targeting the ‘peddlers of hate’ on the Internet’.

    It is obviously the latter of these which is more ‘on topic’ for this blog but I do agree that the whole exercise would be easier if we had clearer definitions to work with.

    Having followed the link you kindly supplied, it looks as if we might be close to a working definition at least as far as the online aspect is concerned. It states:

    THREATENING COMMUNICATIONS
    Intended to deal with threats of serious harm and threats which incite religious hatred.
    Threats of serious harm intended to cause fear and alarm, or reckless as to whether they do. This includes implied threats (e.g. the posting of bullets or images depicting serious harm)
    Threats intended to incite religious hatred

    In my view, this provides a strong enough foundation for moving forward to consider 3 main questions:

    1. Can social media monitoring tools help to identify threats of serious harm and incitement of religious hatred? I am firmly of the opinion that they can. It is not that difficult to identify ‘worst case’ examples.

    2. What role can netnography play in creating a better understanding of the problem? Again, I think it can play a very important role and may actually help you in your search for consensus in this area.

    3. Third, and an area I think has great potential, what role can ‘crowdsourcing’ play in this area – or the ‘zeal of the masses’ as stated in a previous reply by Patrick McGuire? It is noticeable that over the last month or so a number of ‘Old Firm’ United type pages have begun to emerge on Facebook. Can these be cultivated to provide a crowdsourced solution?

    I would be interested in your thoughts on No. 3 in particular. Given that we are now closer to a working definition of the ‘online problem’, is there a crowdsourced solution? Offline, fans say that they can self-police themselves so why not online too?

    I think the suggestions put forward by Mr McGuire in his earlier post are certainly worth thinking about.

    Would be interested in your thoughts on this.

    Thanks again for taking the time to post.

    Take care

    Jim H

    • Thanks.

      Not sure that it will be the first of many.

      My fear in this area has always been that, in order for the Scottish Gov to gain some PR brownie points, there will be a few high profile arrests (an equal number from both sides of course) rather than tackling the real issues. So in my view, it will be the first of a few rather than the first of many.

      The link you provided says that this was part of a police crackdown on Internet bigots. Does one arrest represent a crackdown? It also says that it was part of a task force set up to review Internet sites. This suggests to me that they may be unaware of the fact that we now have the technology to automate much of this process.

      Over the last few months, we have been using various Social Media Monitoring Tools to track incidents of online hatred and have identified numerous other examples including direct threats of physical harm. It is a legitimate question to ask, how serious is this police crackdown and are threats of physical harm targeted at named individuals excluded?

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Take care

      Jim H

  10. The Rangers Seal says:

    To be honest, I’m of a similar opinion. I see this kind of incident as paying lip service to all the bluster that’s gone before. If anyone questions their commitment to dealing with this type of behaviour they’ll have a few well documented incidents that they can readily cite. I don’t know the details of their task force, but I’d be surprised if it was as well organised as is implied in this case. Perhaps the intention is to make a few high profile arrests that would then act as a deterrent, with the police only actually become involved again when extreme incidents such as death threats are observed.

    • Thanks for that and agree totally.

      The fact they have set up a ‘task force’ to monitor this suggests to me that it is really all about PR. The whole point of posting the original article in this series was to show how Social Media Monitoring tools could be used to help in this area. You don’t need a ‘task force’ to do that.

      Take care and thanks again for taking the time to post.

      Jim H

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