Laura Kuenssberg – blog from David Babbs

Yesterday I wrote an article for the Guardian explaining why a petition hosted on the 38 Degrees Campaigns by You website calling for the dismissal of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg had been taken down. I said I’d welcome feedback and questions. I’ve received quite a lot. Here are some quick responses.

What will happen to all the signatures which had been collected on this petition up to the point when it was closed?

Joe is planning to contact all petition signatories to explain what happened. None of the signatures have been deleted. The petition will still be delivered to the BBC.

Who took the decision to take the petition down and how was it taken?

When the 38 Degrees office team became aware of the accusation that the petition was being linked to sexist abuse, we had meeting to discuss the problem.

We agreed to call the petition starter, Joe, to see what he felt about it. We all agreed in this phone call that the best thing to do was to remove the petition.

Joe put up the following statement to explain his decision:

“When I started my campaign I was trying to raise a serious issue about what I saw as a reporter not being balanced and fair in the way that the news was covered. My petition has since been hijacked by a group of people who absolutely do not share my views.

I would like to reassure everyone that I am a passionate advocate for equality in all areas, not just gender equality. This petition has precisely zero to do with gender.

As a result of the sexist trolls who have attempted to derail my petition, I have decided to take it down.”

What was the evidence base for this decision?

We looked at comments left on the petition, and checked twitter. We saw enough comments on both to feel that there was a genuine problem with the petition acting as a launchpad for sexist abuse.

It’s still possible to find sexist comments about Laura Kuenssberg, linking to the petition, on twitter, if you search for them. Some twitter users may have chosen to delete their tweets since they became aware of media attention on this story.

With the benefit of hindsight, we perhaps should have taken screengrabs of these tweets, and counted the exact number. We didn’t do this and it’s not possible to do so now as tweets can be deleted.

Doesn’t this mean that any petition can be hijacked by a small number of people on twitter and then get removed?

I think this is a really important point, as I acknowledged in the Guardian article. We were in a bit of a lose-lose situation – either close a petition which had a lot of legitimate support, or carry on with the petition and be associated with sexist abuse.

I’d welcome thoughts on how else we could have handled this.

One thing I’ve heard which Joe, and I, definitely disagree with is the idea that the sexist abuse linked to this petition should just be seen as “a distraction” because it was only being perpetrated by a minority of people. We need to think more about the right way of dealing with sexist abuse linked to petitions in future – and I definitely agree there are downsides to the approach we took on this occasion. But the starting point for this has to be that no sexist abuse is ok and we should do whatever we can to stamp it out.

Why not just moderate the comments on the petition?

Comments on Campaigns By You petitions are moderated. There’s an automatic filter which removes common abusive terms. In addition users can flag other offensive comments for human moderation. This ensured that the petition page itself did not display a lot of sexist abuse, although some sexist comments were being submitted by petition signers.

However, in this case the problem was with social media comments which linked to the petition and contained abusive language. It wasn’t possible for these to be moderated because they were on twitter, not the 38 Degrees site. But they were linking to the petition page, and expressing support for the petition in sexist terms.

There’s an argument that these comments weren’t being hosted on the 38 Degrees website, we couldn’t control them, so it wasn’t our responsibility to worry about them. But on the other hand, these comments were clearly linking to Joe’s petition and expressing support for it. And it meant that the petition, the petition starter, the campaign, and the 38 Degrees website were being linked to sexist abuse whether we liked it or not.

What about claims that there were no sexist comments on the petition?

A couple of blogs have published a selection of comments from the petition. We can confirm that these look like genuine comments displayed on the petition page before it was taken down.

It’s been suggested that these prove there was no issue with sexism. However, the comments published on these blogs are a selection from those displayed on the petition page *after* a moderation process designed to remove abusive content. So these comments “prove” that our moderation process successfully removed most sexist comments and prevented them being displayed, not that no sexist or abusive comments were being posted.

There were sexist comments being posted, horrible hateful comments – I’m not going to republish them because I don’t want to republish misogynistic hate speech on this website.

As we’ve made clear, the decision to remove the petition, taken by Joe and 38 Degrees together, was taken on the basis of comments being made on social media as well. It’s still possible to find some of the sexist comments on twitter if you search for them.

Was any pressure put on 38 Degrees or Joe, by the BBC, Laura Kuenssberg, or other bits of “the establishment”, to take down the petition?

No.

I contacted Laura Kuenssberg after the decision to close the petition had been taken, to inform her and to apologise for having unintentionally contributed to sexist abuse towards her. This was the first contact I’d had with her on the issue. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to her before.

I do sometimes speak to BBC journalists, who interview me about the campaigns which 38 Degrees members are running. The issue of this petition has never been brought up.

Would you follow the same course of action in the future as you did with this petition?

I don’t know. I certainly don’t feel sure that we got all of this right, and the feedback we’ve received has raised some important questions.

Thankfully this kind of problem is very rare, this is the first time it’s come up in the 7 year history of 38 Degrees. We’ll certainly reflect more and consider our approach before something like this comes up again. We’ll also contact other organisations who host petitions and ask them how they’d approach something like this.

We’ll also chat more with the petition starter, Joe. The decision to close the petition was a joint one and his perspective is really important here.

Did you remove a cache of comments at 3am this morning?

No. We don’t really understand this suggestion, but can confirm that since the decision to take the petition down on 10th May, nothing else has been deleted or removed. At 3am this morning, we were all asleep!