My experiment as a Daily Mail commenter

Provoked by this tweet, in which Daily Mail readers downvoted the comment “Say no to racism!” 2114 times (and upvoted it only 271 times), I was sceptical. This has to be a doctored screen-grab, I thought: who would deliberately downvote the uncontroversial idea of saying no to racism?

So I ran my own experiment: I registered a account as MichaelPTaylor (my real name) and started leaving the most uncontroversial compassionate comments I could think of on various articles. Here is one of the results:


If you’re struggling with the small font: my comment on the forthcoming demolition of the refugee camp in Calais was “This is a tragedy. Whoever is to blame, I wish the UK would do more to help the most vulnerable.” That comment has been downvoted 99 times, and upvoted zero times.

And the first response was from someone calling himself “Brooklyn the waster”, who comments “Michael, i’m guessing you’re overweight and smell badly. Ill put money on it.” That comment has been upvoted 24 times and down voted once.

So far, so disappointing. My charitable response to the initial tweet — I know there is a tendency towards racism in Mail readers. But not an 8:1 oppoisiton to “Say no to racism”. — was looking over-optimistic.

And that’s been the pattern, more or less, with nearly all the comments Iv’e posted, as you can verify at my profile page:


But here is the interesting thing: on the story “Home Office claims Calais ‘child’ migrants have been aged by conflict“, I commented “Isn’t the main thing to help innocent people, regardless of their age?“. That comment has received a hundred times the attention of any of the others, and the great majority — by a ratio of nearly four to one — upvoted it:


Now admittedly, 2817 people feel that helping innocent people is not the main thing — but more than ten thousand people agree that it is.

I really don’t know what to make of this. I would love to think it shows that people are better than we assume they are — that even among the readership of the Daily Mail, for all the hard work it’s done to promote xenophobia and paranoia all these years, most people are decent and compassionate. (And I do like to think the best of people when I can: if Anne Frank could say “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart”, so can I.)

But that does leave me needing to explain why the responses to my other comments have been so horrible. Also, the comments in response to mine have been almost uniformly hideous. (Follow the links above for examples, if you want them. You won’t enjoy it)

So: why the huge discrepancy in the response to my one popular comment and all my unpopular ones?

Update (the next morning)

Interesting changes overnight. My much-loved comment has accumulated only 32 more likes overnight, but 204 dislikes: more than six times as many!


Does this mean that the more unpleasant Daily Mail readers only come out at night?

8 responses to “My experiment as a Daily Mail commenter

  1. Interesting – I am curious if your popular comment was an article that was linked widely on non-Daily Mail sites or somehow had a high visibility outside of the DM’s regular commenting base,

  2. Michael Kohne

    The simplest answer I can think of is that the people participating in the forums are not representative of the larger readership. It’s certainly true in other places (youtube for instance).

  3. What a fascinating experiment. Thanks for sharing, and I am amused by how how well you were able to strike the tone of completely innocuous compassion. Knowing what you’re doing your comments are really funny (and all statements I would agree with!)

  4. It almost looks as if the negative comments are not (just) made by another category of people as the positive support, but as if they are mere knee-jerk reflexes bypassing the cognitive functions altogether resulting in the individuals in question give in to a primitive urge to lash out or growl towards anything perceived as remotely threatening (e.g. any nuanced opinion is seen as “gay”).
    I think that most of those individuals, when questioned individually, won’t act like that. Though they probably won’t appear very smart either.

  5. I think that your well-received comment made a more nuanced, interesting point than your other Daily Mail comments, and therefore it deserved to be better-received. Some say the migrants aren’t really children; the Home Office says they really are children; you say it shouldn’t really matter whether they’re children or not. That’s a legitimate addition to the conversation and 10,000 people found it worthwhile to endorse.

    Your other experimental comments were so vague and anodyne, it was harder for people to find a positive reason to endorse them. Not that they *disagree* that “It’s a tragedy,” it’s just that they don’t find *your* plain observation that “It’s a tragedy” to be a compelling insight or turn of phrase that needs to be more widely broadcast.

    So my take on the Daily Mail commentariat is:
    * small population of people willing to take a second to sneer at pious statements
    * much larger population of people who don’t disagree with bland pious statements, but don’t have time to be clicking “like” on all of them
    * much larger population of people who are willing to either like or dislike a comment that rises to making a more substantial point

  6. I think the issue here is that you’re entering not just the realm of second-guessing, but of third- and fourth- and fifth-guessing.

    What the commenters are responding to is not what you wrote, but their guess about why you wrote what you wrote. So when the commenter insults you in response to your ‘This is a tragedy’ comment, what’s actually happening is not that they are responding to the comment, but that they are trying to work out ‘what sort of a person leaves that kind of a comment on an article like this?’ deciding that you are likely to be the kind of person who they would like do insult, and then doing so.

    And then you are doing the same thing when you try to work out what they think of you from what they wrote…

    It’s like the ‘black lives matter’ / ‘all lives matter’ thing. Both, if you strip away all context, are pretty innocuous statements of fact. But what makes the different is what they reveal about who the kinds of people who posted them are: working out what the choice of which thing to say in a given context means about the thought processes of the person who said it.

    So when you post ‘This is a tragedy’, people don’t just see the words, they see a person who cared enough to post those words in response to this article and therefore they think what kind of point does that person want to make by posting these words? What are they trying to say, beyond a mere statement of fact? What is their agenda by posting those words?

    And then they reply in response not just to the actual words, but according to their back-filling of what your agenda might be in posting them.

    They probably wouldn’t put it in these terms, but they understand that speech is almost always a performative act: we don’t say things just to describe reality but also in an attempt to make a point and change that reality. If in a stifling train carriage I say, ‘Gosh, isn’t it hot in here?’ I am not just describing the situation but hoping that by choosing to say those words, at that time, I can provoke someone into opening a window.

    So if someone lazy sitting by the window were to reply: ‘Shut up, it’s not that bad!’ that doesn’t necessarily mean they disagree with my assessment of the heat, just that they perceive that I wasn’t simply commenting on the heat but wanting them to do something — something they don’t want to do.

    So someone who insults you for writing, ‘This is a tragedy’ may not be disagreeing that it is a tragedy: they may have thought that your agenda in making that observation was to try to produce a response of opening our borders to anyone who wants to come to Britain for any reason, which is an extreme position that could reasonably be disagreed with, and expressed their disagreement, in their inarticulate way, as an insult directed at you.

    Similarly with the comment that provoked all this, ‘Say no to racism’, the down-voting may not have been because the down-voters approved of racism but because they thought (rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly) that the commenter, in that context, was not just making an observation, but was attempting a performative speech act with an agenda that they disagreed with.

  7. Crash Random, I wonder whether you’ve hit on something: the idea that the other commenters were not responding on the basis of whether they agreed with the comment, but whether they felt it added a substantive point to the discussion. It’s an appealing idea, but I am not convinced it stands up in light of how other comments on the same stories get up- and downvoted.

    Interesting point, H. I doubt that the Daily Mail commenters who responded abusively had any conscious handle on the second-guessing process you describe, but it may indeed be what was happening under the surface.

  8. I second Crash Random’s point. I think the kind of people who tend to agree with you tend to just read without upvoting/downvoting anything, and would upvote something only if it’s bringing in a new idea to the topic. Your other comments got downvoted heavily because many folks who are anti-immigration tend to be a bit radical and upvote things they agree with and downvote things they disagree with. People who tend to agree with you are probably more like you and mostly don’t do anything (like you were likely doing before this experiment).

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