Well, sooner or later, faced with a problem, I was going to resort to a spreadsheet (people who have worked with me are allowed to roll their eyes at this point).
Now most of the dust has settled from Hope’s 15 minutes of fame (see this post, and this Facebook page if you don’t know what this is all about), I want to understand a little better. At least I want to be able to say with some accuracy how people reacted, even if I can’t understand why they reacted that way.
Luckily, we have a way of recording people’s reactions to the story, or at least at one particular moment. BBC Midlands Today made a short clip telling Steph and Matt’s story and put it on their Facebook page, from where it got picked up by the national BBC website and garnered 167,000 views (and how many times have I wished it had mentioned Hope Projects…)
Being a Facebook page, it was easy for people to react to the story in a variety of ways, and those reactions are recorded. In a ‘picking at a scab’ sort of way, I’ve spent a day or two analysing the responses. Ok, I felt in need of a shower after reading some of them, and a almost overwhelming desire to respond to some people who made assumptions that were simply factually wrong, in an esprit d’escalier sort of way, but I resisted. Here’s what I learned.
Let’s start with a couple of caveats. Firstly, only people who saw it, were on the internet and felt moved to interact with the story reacted. That was a lot of people, but it’s self selecting not a scientific sample.
It was on a generalist BBC programme. Any bias in the programme will likely be reflected in the audience. I have a fairly high view of BBC neutrality, you have your own opinion.
The story was told in a fairly sympathetic way. This could have influenced reaction.
People could react in the way that they chose, although it is slightly easier to ‘like’ than any other reaction, which requires a button to be held down and an option selected. This could have led to some bias in favour of ‘likes’.
Ok, let’s move on. 2245 individual people either reacted (‘like’, ‘heart’, ‘angry’, ‘lol’ etc.), commented or ‘liked’ a comment.
The first thing I was drawn to was the comments. All 376 of them. I categorised them as negative, positive or neutral. This process surprisingly easy. There wasn’t a lot of nuance out there. Wow, but their are some angry people. Matt and Steph were Disgusting, Evil, Vile and Shameful. I’m leaving out the obscene ones. 248 of the comments were negative (65% of all comments). 89 (23%) were positive and 47 (12%) were neutral (often just tagging another person or a recurring strand of people recognising Matt).
These comments could be given emphasis by other people ‘liking’ them. Some comments got hundreds of likes. I added these together, so a negative comment with no likes counted as 1, a negative comment with 9 likes counted as 10.
A little more balanced this time. Out of 1945 interactions, 1193 (61%) negative, 568 (29%) positive and 47 (10%) neutral.
Looking at the negative posts in more detail. Why did they dislike what Matt and Steph had done? One overwhelming reason. They had not given their house to ‘our homeless people’. Often linked to the phrase ‘ charity begins at home’. 131 comments (34% of all comments) made this point. When the ’emphasis’ scores are added in it becomes 855 out of 1945. 43%. 41 of these comments specified homeless ex servicemen. I’ll come back to this later.
The other two reasons given by significant numbers of negative posters were anti asylum arguments (15 comments, emphasis score of 34) and criticism of Steph and Matt for publicity seeking (9 comments, emphasis 82). Most of the remaining 93 comments (emphasis 219) were just abuse, no reason given.
Interestingly, when looking at the emphasis scores, 20% of negative interactions came from just 5% of the people. There are some pretty busy people out there, with a lot to say.
The ‘reactions’ tell a different story. Again a couple of caveats.
I’m assuming that liking the story equates to being positive about what Matt and Steph did. It’s possible that there are people who liked it thinking ‘terrible people but great camera work…’
I’ve assumed that the small number of ‘lol’, ‘shock’ and ‘cry’ reactions were negative. Since they only accounted for 33 reactions I’ll live with this.
I’ve already flagged up the possibility of bias from the fact that liking is a slightly easier operation than any of the others.
So 1496 people reacted.
1124 of these were likes, and another 183 were ‘hearts’. A total of 87% positive. There were 156 ‘angry’ (10%) and the remaining 33 (10%) I’ve taken to be negative. 13% total negative.
That’s striking. Positive reactions overwhelmed negative ones. In much the same way as for negative comments, a small group of people are very busy, particularly ‘liking’ other positive comments.
The number of distinct individuals who interacted in any positive way, by ‘liking’ or ‘hearting’ the story, commenting or ‘liking’ a comment was 1443 compared to 802 distinct individuals who interacted in a negative way.
I’m nervous of extrapolating from a snapshot, especially one with so many caveats, but there are a couple of observations that I think are significant.
Firstly, the discourse is negative. Reading the comments felt like dipping my head in acid. This however distracts from a significantly larger group that are positive but not so demonstrative. There are grounds for greater faith in the empathy of the general public than is apparent from those who shout loudest.
Secondly, I keep coming back to the argument about homelessness. There may be a passion for better homelessness provision that, if true in an uncomplicated way, would imply that homelessness charities are rolling in donations and having to beat away prospective volunteers with a big stick. Go do the research, but I’d be surprised… Or, this is a surrogate. Some of the negative commenters have other underlying motivations, but are reluctant to air them, for fear of (for example) appearing racist. That’s actually quite cheering in a slightly perverse way if true. It’s hypocrisy, and as La Rochefoucauld observed, hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue.