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Does this hugely popular Facebook page sow division in Sheffield?

Audiences for social media's amateur news sites dwarf those of traditional media – but critics say they undermine community cohesion in the city.

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Harrison Qi on Unsplash.

The decline of traditional local news outlets over the past two decades – in part caused by the meteoric rise of social media – has led to a rush of replacements eager to fill the vacuum.

Some of these relative newcomers, like Now Then and the Sheffield Tribune, function in a similar way to their print media predecessors, with teams of paid and volunteer journalists filing stories on their own websites while following a code of conduct.

But audiences for these new media organisations pale in comparison to those on the same social media platforms that have done so much to undermine local journalism.

More than 170,000 people (about a third of Sheffield's population) follow a Facebook page called Sheffield Online, while more than 30,000 follow Sheffield News. Similar sites operate in most large towns and cities across the country.

Sheffield Online post content several times a day, mostly lifted from The Star, and their posts regularly attracts hundreds of comments.

"The benefits of multiculturalism just keeps giving," said one commenter, on a story about an Asian man who was prosecuted for attempted murder. "City of Sanctuary," said another – even though there was no suggestion that the perpetrator was an asylum seeker or refugee.

"Fkin joke of a sentence. Hope when he's out he gets a bedsit near the tw@t who sentenced him," said one person on a story about a man who was sentenced to 12 months for assault, seemingly advocating violence against a judge.

Another regular commenter posts links to guidance on "citizenship deprivation" underneath crime stories that feature a non-white perpetrator – even where their nationality is not mentioned.

One crime story based on an appeal for information from the police attracted a flood of comments, including references to "these kind of people" and "backwards types".

Despite taking most of their content from The Star, Sheffield Online appear to make money from their vast audience by selling advertising. Their page features local businesses like Napoleons, Owlerton Stadium and The Yorkshire Print Company.

Sheffield online

Sheffield Online on Facebook.

When we asked Sheffield Online about comments on their page, they said that although it's hard to "monitor every comment", they review comments flagged through their inbox. Although page owners on Facebook can remove individual comments from their posts, Sheffield Online told us they do not have a policy on comments beyond Facebook's default policies.

Unlike Now Then (regulated by IMPRESS) and The Star (regulated by IPSO), Facebook pages are not usually signed up to a press regulator, meaning they don't follow an industry code of conduct and they're not accountable to a complaints procedure.

They're also not obliged to put names to their posts. Sheffield Online told us "a team of bloggers" ran the page, but declined to provide any names, saying that the "admins are private."

Many of the stories posted on the page are about individual incidents of crime, especially in areas of Sheffield with high levels of deprivation like Darnall and Page Hall.

The corrosive effect that this distorted impression of an area has on its own residents is clear from some of the comments left underneath.

"This is terrifying it’s because of hooligans like this I can’t leave my house anymore," said one commenter below a photo of a group of men connected to an assault. "I’ve spent 10 years inside just trying to stay alive because of violent gangs roaming our streets."

"next time jades asks to walk home on her own. Tell her this is the reason why she can’t! Xx" said one person on a crime story, with other commenters agreeing that they wouldn't let their secondary-age children walk home alone in Sheffield.

In reality crime rates have steadily fallen across the UK over the past decade, but some blamed a rise in community tensions in Page Hall ten years ago on a string of negative stories about the area in the national press.

Sheffield Online's relentless focus on crime might be because much of the content the page draws on comes from the communications team at South Yorkshire Police (SYP).

These include mugshots and CCTV images, released either as an appeal for information or after a prosecution, raising questions about the police's complicity with the comments these social media posts attract.

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Crime estimates in England and Wales for 1981 to 2020.

Office for National Statistics.

An investigation by the Huffington Post earlier this year found that London's Metropolitan Police were more likely to publish mugshots of suspected offenders if they were black.

The story's author, journalist Sarah Turnnidge, wrote that these images are "shared widely on social media – shaping the public’s perception of what a 'criminal' looks like."

We asked South Yorkshire Police why they released images of people who have already been convicted of a crime. A spokesperson said it was in the interests of "open justice".

“The force’s publication of court reports and custody images on conviction is a crucial aspect of our duty to serve the public and ensure we are open, honest and transparent in our work," they continued.

“Media outlets on all platforms have a responsibility to operate within the law. Any reports of criminal activity should be reported to us and we will take action if required.”

The unchecked rise in extremism among users of social media platforms like Facebook raises questions about the role of big tech companies in creating a safe space for hate speech.

In October, leaked documents from Facebook showed how the site's algorithm values an 'angry' reaction to a post five times higher than a 'like' when deciding what to show to users in their news feeds.

This effect boosts alarming stories that create an exaggerated impression of crime in an inner-city area like Page Hall, while downplaying more positive stories or those that enhance a sense of community.

"The issue of negative narratives perpetuated on social media is a huge hurdle for cohesion," one senior officer at Sheffield City Council told Now Then under condition of anonymity.

"Sheffield is pretty good at being friendly and welcoming overall but there are some who feel threatened by newcomers, and the way to deal with this is to meet them and find out they aren't scary, not to demonise them."

The officer went on to say although the Council couldn't do anything about unregulated social media sites, the way to counter negative stereotypes was to "create an alternative, stronger narrative about inclusion and diversity."

"Any media that spreads fear, especially of others, is unhelpful in creating happy communities," they continued. "Fear of crime is often more powerful than the crimes themselves – fear of what someone might do is used to keep us anxious."

"We need to celebrate the good things more and make it clear to those who would do bad that they aren't welcome."

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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