Today we say enough is enough to online abuse, we have to Call It Out - Laura Collins, YEP Editor

“Hello Mrs. Looking good. Get me six cans of beer then hurry home and make my lunch lol.”

By Laura Collins
Saturday, 18th July 2020, 6:00 am
Today the Yorkshire Evening Post launches a new campaign to tackle abuse on social media. Pic: Shutterstock
Today the Yorkshire Evening Post launches a new campaign to tackle abuse on social media. Pic: Shutterstock

“Is she wearing her underwear as a mask?”

“Hope she doesn’t have any aspirations as a reporter.”

“Does she actually get paid?”

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The Yorkshire Evening Post launches its Call It Out campaign.

This is a snapshot of just some of the cutting comments posted on the Yorkshire Evening Post Facebook page while a reporter broadcasted live on the streets of Leeds.

What on earth gives someone the right to call into question the ability of a person they don’t even know?

The reality is these comments barely scratch the surface when it comes to shining a spotlight on the abuse that has been directed towards YEP journalists. These are just a tiny snapshot of some of the appalling messages that some of our reporters – more often than not female – are faced with day in, day out.

These comments weren’t said to their faces. Instead they were tapped out by someone hiding behind their keyboard, taking a cheap shot at another person simply doing their job. Would I go into someone else’s workplace and throw abuse at a complete stranger about how they carry out their role? Absolutely not. So why is this seen as perfectly acceptable online?

The sad reality is I could fill our entire newspaper with the reams of hateful and abusive comments that the team is forced to monitor each day on our social media channels. It is the equivalent of policing the Wild West.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the abuse myself, too. People have called into question my credentials as an editor purely because I’m a young woman in a high profile position.

I shouldn’t have to justify myself just because I’m female. I have worked incredibly hard to get to where I am today. I have dedicated my entire working career to the YEP – from earning my qualifications to become a fully fledged senior reporter, right through to the day I was appointed to lead the team. But when my editorship was announced, the comments that followed on social media were not about my journalistic skills and instead focused on my age and appearance.

And I probably could have retired already if I had a pound for every time someone disagreed with an article published by the YEP and called for me to be sacked.

What makes people feel entitled to post this kind of venom – and much worse – in such a public arena, just because a computer or smartphone screen separates us? I’m sure most of those sniping at others online wouldn’t shout this sort of abuse at the face of someone they’ve never met before in the middle of Briggate, so what makes it any more acceptable on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter?

Today this stops. Today we say enough is enough.

The YEP is launching a new campaign to call this out for what it is – it’s abuse, it’s damaging and there’s a real danger that social channels will become more and more toxic if we don’t all take responsibility for the power of our words.

I’m absolutely convinced there are more good people than bad in our wonderful city and around the world.

There are many reasons to be proud of how we conduct ourselves here in Leeds – the last few months have truly demonstrated the real force for good our collective spirit can provoke.

We’ve seen thousands of people step out on the streets to celebrate our key workers and frontline health workers.

Thousands of volunteers have answered the call to mobilise a volunteer army to support the most vulnerable people in their time of need during the pandemic.

We’ve also seen some wonderful acts of kindness ranging from donations to charities and rainbows painted in windows, to neighbours supporting each other through this dark time.

And now we’re calling on the city to unite again in the fight against abuse on social media.

No longer should we sit back and allow the loud voices of a hateful but vocal minority drown the rest of us out.

We set our own standards of conduct and need to turn the tide against such needless spite and intolerance by calling it out for what it is.

As a society we have never been better connected as social media allows us to stay in touch with our extended network of family and friends across the globe at the click of a button.

We’ve seen millions of pounds raised for good causes through inspiring stories of heroism such as Captain Sir Tom Moore’s NHS fundraising challenge.

But, there is also a real need for responsibility from those who are policing this modern day arena of battle.

Gone are the days of Gladiators fighting in public arenas.

That public arena has now been replaced by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

The swords and spears may be long gone, but the old phrase that words can never hurt me is simply not true for everyone. There can be deeply damaging consequences to the constant drip of hateful language used with so little thought online, both to individuals and society as a whole.

Each of us needs to take a step back and check our own moral compasses before posting. Would you say this to someone’s face? Does it add anything useful to the debate? Or is it just plain nasty?

Our journalists have been forced to delete, hide and rigorously monitor comments on our social platforms to the extent that it can consume their entire day. There is no off switch. So dire is the situation that this week my team was forced to draw up a new list of abusive and offensive terms to add to the filters on our Facebook page.

The scale of it has been staggering. We’ve seen racism, misogyny, abuse directed towards victims of crimes, and posts littered with violent and sexual language. The list goes on and on and on.

We’re determined not to shy away from this – we take our responsibility as a trusted local news publisher very seriously and that is why we are keen to get our own house in order.

We believe in free speech and it is a right that must be protected and valued. Free speech is the cornerstone of any democracy.

When it is used in the right way, it can be a powerful tool to implement change. It also drives debate and helps communities tackle challenges head on. However, this privilege comes with responsibilities and should not be used as an excuse to incite hatred.

As part of our Call It Out campaign, the YEP is going to shine a spotlight on the challenges of balancing social abuse and freedom of speech.

And we need each of you to play a role in this too, starting with simply reporting any language you see on social media that crosses the line. We’re calling on our city’s politicians to legislate on the issue and make platforms more responsible for helping to prevent abusive behaviour.

And we’re asking the social media platforms themselves to step up their efforts and give those of us who host social media pages and groups more effective tools to help us really get a grip on the problem.

But the most simple and significant action is for each of us to reflect on how we talk to others – if we can’t say anything nice or make criticisms in a constructive way then perhaps we shouldn’t say anything at all.

When we see someone crossing the line, let’s not be the person holding the bully’s coat in the playground.

Don’t stand idly by when those abusive comments stream in.

Make a difference not by wading in to offer abuse back in return, but report the comments so that those with the power to ban repeat offenders.

Words hold so much power – they have a real impact, be that positive or negative.

Now, together, our actions can speak louder than words.