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Sheffield Online plagiarise piece by Now Then – and open the floodgates to hate

When independent publishers can have their work lifted without permission, is it time to think radically about media reform?

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Sheffield Online took several paragraphs of Now Then's story without permission.

Warning: this piece includes reproduced comments that use offensive language.

“This is absolutely disgusting .... but not a surprise from Sheffield hallam university who waved fago t flags. This stupid university looks like only welcome LGBT plus millions and not a normal students.... shame on you Sheffield hallam university!”

The above comment was left by a Facebook account called “Mo Builder” underneath an article I wrote last week for Now Then about the serious inequalities faced by LGBTQ+ people in the UK’s housing market (we reported this comment to Facebook, who said: “In this case, we did not remove the content that you reported”).

But it wasn’t posted on Now Then’s Facebook page, where the story attracted a grand total of three likes and no comments.

Instead, the story was stolen without permission by enormously popular Facebook page Sheffield Online, with the headline and first four paragraphs lifted before a link to the original piece on our site. In contrast to when we posted the story ourselves, this plagiarised version has attracted a lot of attention – with 122 ‘laugh’ reactions and 152 comments at the time of writing.

The comments are universally negative, with some constituting outright hate speech. Many of them feature homophobic jokes and tropes (“Cue back passage jokes 🤣” writes one commenter). Many more appear to misunderstand how systemic inequality works – a common theme suggests that there is no inequality for LGBTQ+ people in the housing market because anyone with enough money is free to buy a house.

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One of the dozens of hateful comments left underneath Sheffield Online's post.

“I couldn't give a toss about people who are confused,” comments one man, while one of Sheffield Online’s ‘Top Fans’ speculates that lesbian relationships are “volatile, unstable and not lasting to the stage of getting a mortgage together.”

“You have to program yourself to be non heterosexual,” writes one commenter, seemingly advocating conversion self-therapy for queer people, whereas others veer into other forms of hatred: “All romas live in them houses 🤣” writes another ‘Top Fan’ about a photo of Meersbrook Park.

Now Then asked Sheffield Online why they had not removed the hateful comments on this post, and what their policy was on moderating hate speech, but they did not respond to our request for comment.

Plagiarism online

I last wrote about Sheffield Online in 2021, and the way that their Facebook posts using content lifted from other sources (mostly the Sheffield Star) had become a breeding ground for hate speech, incitements to violence, and racism.

At the time the page had around 170,000 followers, which has now ballooned to more than 230,000 followers.

Their posts mostly consist of stories taken from the Star, with the first couple of paragraphs posted verbatim followed by a ‘Read More’ link (it seems likely that the owners of the page will know that a vanishingly small number of people will click through to the original story, and that most of the engagement will stay on their own Facebook page).

Their output also features shared posts from South Yorkshire Police (many containing mugshots of people of colour, which tend to attract a torrent of racist comments), as well as advertising. It remains unclear what the operational purpose is of the police posting mugshots of people who have already been convicted.

Sheffield Online’s website suggests that businesses can pay £120 a year for a “Monthly Facebook Post” on the platform, or £199 a year for “Constant Running Ads On Blog And Faceboom” [sic].

The page currently includes an advert for the ‘Fan City’ event taking place on Devonshire Green throughout the Euros. Promotional graphics for the event show that this has links with ‘Welcome To Sheffield’, which is a marketing brand run by Sheffield City Council.

The Council told Now Then that Fan City is an external event which they have not made a financial contribution towards, although they have granted the organisers use of Devonshire Green under a “staging agreement” that is subject to commercial confidentiality.

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The Fan City advert posted by Sheffield Online, featuring 'Welcome To Sheffield' and 'The Outdoor City' logos.

Fan City Sheffield.

The Council were also keen to stress that they have no involvement in where Fan City place their adverts, and that they take a proactive, no-tolerance approach to dealing with hate speech across all of their own official social media channels.

We asked Fan City how much they had spent advertising on Sheffield Online, but they did not reply to our request for comment.

Back in 2021, the owners of Sheffield Online (who declined to reveal their identity) told me that they review hateful comments flagged through their inbox, but that it was hard to “monitor every comment” and that they did not have a policy on what comments they did or did not allow, beyond Facebook’s own, very lax, policies.

But even a quick scan through the most recent stories on their page reveals a litany of hateful comments – some of which border on a criminal offence – which appear to have gone unmoderated by the owners of the page.

Democratic deficit

The issues around hate speech and plagiarism on Sheffield Online speak to wider systemic problems, such as a growing democratic deficit in the UK and a crisis in local media and collective sense-making.

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The different advertising packages offered by Sheffield Online.

According to trade journal Press Gazette, the local and regional media sector is around seven times smaller today than it was before the 2008 financial crash (adjusted for inflation), and revenues in 2022 were a quarter of what they were in 2007.

This is in large part due to a collapse in advertising, as a result of the rise of the internet and the ease at which original reporting can be lifted without permission and reposted by others for profit.

This means that once-powerful local newspapers like The Star are increasingly operating with skeleton staffing arrangements, or are sharing journalists with other titles across huge areas, while independent local media like Now Then face a constant struggle for the revenues required to maintain capacity and coverage.

But it’s not just smaller sites like Sheffield Online that profit from other organisation’s original reporting. Publishers have long complained that Google and Meta (which owns Facebook) themselves deliver news content taken from the media direct to the end user, and in the process syphon off much of the advertising revenue.

The collapse of local media, both corporate and independent, has real consequences for our democracy. Studies in the US have linked the decline of local newspapers with increased levels of corruption in local government, lower voter turnout and a higher likelihood of incumbent candidates winning local elections.

At the same time, other studies have shown that algorithms on social media sites like Facebook deepen divisions and drive people towards ever more extreme content, and that the social media giants have purposefully engineered their platforms to prioritise negative or anger-inducing content over content that promotes consensus, compromise and understanding.

Media vouchers

How can we start to mend this democratic deficit?

Firstly, social media platforms could put in place policies, and governments could pass laws, to protect publishers from having their content lifted and monetised without their permission. Companies like Facebook could choose to shut down pages that continually plagiarise work and fail to moderate hate speech, like Sheffield Online.

Now Then’s fellow Sheffield-based independent outlet The Tribune have suggested a change to the rules on public notices. These are notifications about things like planning applications that local councils are legally obliged to publish in a paper newspaper, as a result of outdated laws dating back to the 19th century. The Tribune say that opening these up to online-only publications could provide a much-needed source of revenue for independent media.

But in Daniel Chandler’s new book Free and Equal, which explores how we could transform society using the principles of the great justice philosopher John Rawls, he suggests a series of even more radical reforms that could save local media while also strengthening our democracy and our collective sense-making abilities.

Chandler proposes the introduction of what he calls “media vouchers” – a small amount of money given to each citizen that they can then award to any eligible news outlet (for example, you may choose to award your vouchers to Now Then, or The Tribune, or the Daily Mail).

“Since the purpose of the scheme would be to promote accurate and reliable public interest news, we would need to find a way to restrict eligibility to organisations that produce relevant content (there is no need to subsidise gardening or car magazines),” Chandler writes.

“At the same time, we should make subsidies conditional on adhering to certain independently monitored standards of factual accuracy, integrity and respect for the law.” He also suggests that the scheme should explicitly promote a diverse range of platforms and outlets, by limiting the amount of voucher money that can go to each publisher.

The expectation of minimum standards in this proposal isn’t too dissimilar to that of IMPRESS, the independent press regulator set up in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. Now Then is a long-time member of IMPRESS, but few mainstream national publications are.

Through an idea like media vouchers, we could start to incentivise media content that brings communities together, promotes understanding, and looks for consensus, rather than content which whips up hatred and extremism for profit.

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There has been a net loss of 271 print local newspaper titles since 2005, according to Press Gazette.

Julia Sabiniarz on Unsplash.

At the same time, it could provide a vital funding lifeline for outlets that help us make sense of both where we live and of the wider world.

We asked Sheffield Online multiple times for comment on this piece, including what justification they could give for making money based on other outlets’ original content, but they did not respond.

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