We stood up the Greta Thunberg trolls — and we’d do it again, too

Greta Thunberg in Bristol last month

Thousands upon thousands of young people descended on Bristol to hear teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg speak. It was big news for BristolLive — but journalists were taken aback by the tone of the comments made by some readers. They decided to hit back. Editor-in-chief Mike Norton on what happened next….

We had discussed the idea — and bottled it — on several other occasions.
But the arrival in Bristol of teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg felt like the right time to go ahead.

I’m referring to the Bristol Live story highlighting the abuse and threats made on Facebook towards Greta by six Bristol men.

We knew the story was likely to make an impact. But we could not have predicted how big.

The crowd turns out to see Greta

Within three days, it had generated almost 700,000 page views and inspired at least two national TV and radio debates.

It was praised and shared by tens of thousands, including high-profile social media commentators like Neil Gaiman and Rosalyn Warren.

All credit must go to the story’s author Tristan Cork.

Tristan approached the issue with characteristic care and consideration. He trawled through thousands of negative Facebook comments about Greta in advance of her visit.

His objective was simple and focussed. He was looking for comments which advocated violence towards the 17-year-old. Hundreds called her “a puppet” or “a witch”. Tristan homed in on the one calling for her to be burned alive. Or thrown over a fence by her pigtails. Or smashed in the face with a brick.

The result was measured and careful, presenting the men’s’ views without comment under screenshots of their profile pictures.

We had discussed the story in conference but I saw it for the first time on the evening of Greta’s visit, at the end of a day when we were already on track to hit more than a million page views.

Deciding to go ahead with publication was not an easy decision. Nor was it taken lightly. With Tristan, BristolLive’s digital editor Sian David and the content team around me, I played out the possible scenarios.

What if someone else had made the comments using their profile? What if the men or their families were attacked? What if they had mental health issues? What would my defence be?

The sight of so many people prompted violent responses from some trolls

We had the story legalled. The Reach lawyer made very few changes. I wasn’t surprised. I always knew that publication would be an ethical rather than a legal decision.

As is often for an editor, there was no easy, binary decision. I went ahead with publication for several reasons. Firstly, the story was robust — Tristan had researched it well and written it straight. Secondly, the issue of social media nastiness was front-of-mind in the public consciousness, particularly around Greta’s visit.

Finally, I had seen Greta inspire 20,000 people in Bristol that day and there was something about the shocking contrast of this tiny young person with the brutality of the men’s’ threats against her which compelled me to go ahead.
This felt like the right time and the right occasion to highlight the dark side of social media behaviour.

The story went live on Saturday morning. It sat on Chartbeat with more than 1,000 concurrents for three days.

The reaction was fascinating. Only one of the men complained to us, saying we did not have permission to use his picture or comment and asking for us to make him an offer “before I take you to court”.

Another of the men — the one who said Greta should be “Trunchbulled”, ie swung around by her pigtails like the little girl in the Roald Dahl story — allegedly spoke to a local YouTuber (more of whom later) who claimed he had suffered mental health issues as a result of the coverage. Later that day, he changed his Facebook profile picture to a still from the film Matilda of Miss Trunchbull swinging a little girl by her pigtails.

The wider reaction on Facebook and Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. Thousands praised Tristan for giving voice to their concerns about the negative comments towards Greta (and others).

Only a minority of people chose to defend the men’s’ views, usually citing freedom of speech or trying to diminish them as “banter”.

The quality of the media reaction was — for a journalist — underwhelming.

BBC Radio Bristol woke up to the story two days after it was published, texting me at 5.55am on Monday morning and asking if I would appear on the breakfast programme at 7am. I turned down the offer.

Requests for interviews came thick and fast. More from BBC Bristol, from 5Live, then LBC, then Sky News.

Usually, I’m happy to help. But this time I decided to let the story speak for itself. By going beyond its carefully measured tone, I didn’t want to be accused of doing to the men what they had done to Greta. Not did I want to appear to be cashing in on the reprehensible views in the story which, by now, was being billed as a “naming and shaming” exercise.

For the record, I don’t agree with that. There was no explicit condemnation. Tristan deliberately presented the comments as they were published on Facebook.

Yes, we named the men — although, technically, they had already named themselves on a public forum. The shame, on the other hand, was all theirs.

Meanwhile, other media pressed ahead with debates about whether or not we were right to, yes, “name and shame” the men. As I had decided not to comment, I was interested to see who they would turn to.

Step forward the local YouTuber I mentioned earlier. He had jumped on the story at the weekend, clearly seeing it as a way to raise his online profile (he has about a thousand YouTube subscribers). He pontificated to his 1,000 followers on Twitter about our lack of responsible publishing.

To my amazement, both the BBC and LBC gave him a platform during their debates on the subject. Not because he provided any apparent expertise. Far from it. But simply because he was vociferous on Twitter.

No one asked Facebook to comment.

I’m writing this days after the story’s publication. Its page views are fading. But it is still our top story for the day.

I’m proud that we did it. And proud of the way we did it.

I would like to think that it might make someone think again before they post threats of violence in our Facebook comments. But I’m not holding my breath.
Most importantly, the outcome feels like a victory for common decency.

If anything, I believe the exercise has taught us that — done properly — it is possible to hit back at violent trolls without making the situation worse

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The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

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