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Hedge-blog: contemplating death to cyclists below the line

22nd April 2014

When cycling articles are published, there's often a lively debate below the line. This is particularly so when the articles are in non-specialist publications, and non-cyclists join the discussion. There's nothing wrong with that.

However, do some commenters go too far when they contemplate death to cyclists in their posts?

One example which sticks in my mind is a post on Yougov's website, under an article titled 'The Path to a Cycling Revolution.' A commenter called Fountainofinfo wrote, 'Most deaths of cyclists in London are caused by the cyclist undertaking a lorry at a turning. If they do this they deserve to die for their ignorance.' [Then after an RLJ rant] If they do , i hope they get flattened...I have no sympathy, they are idiots.'

The evidence doesn't support Fountainofinfo's assertion that most cyclists who are killed were at fault, but that's not the most serious problem with his post. When he writes that people deserve to die, or that he hopes that they get flattened, it may not be a criminal offence, but it is nasty and malicious.

I used the 'Feedback' tab to flag this comment to Yougov, but I have received no reply.

Today, in the Guardian's Bike Blog, there was an article by Nick Mead about some new bike lights. As often happens, the debate below the line immediately went off topic, albeit only slightly. The first comment mentioned high-viz jackets. A commenter called Barry1858 joined in, and told an anecdote about recently berating a cyclist through his car window, at traffic lights. According to Barry1858, he said to the cyclist, 'you know, it would be helpful to drivers if you wore bright clothing when cycling.' He professed to be surprised that the reply wasn't friendly and polite.

As everybody knows, it's not a good idea to make unsolicited, critical remarks to strangers. I doubt that Barry 1858 would do so to someone in the street or the supermarket, where he would have to deal with the consequences. He almost certainly did it because he felt protected by being in a car, and being able to drive off. In any case, his central point is wrong. In successful cycling nations, hardly anyone wears hi-viz. It's unnecessary if there's decent cycling infrastructure.  

The debate continued, and in a later post, Barry1858 wrote, 'In the circumstances, that he was being an idiot was just a statement of fact and even my exhortation that he should 'move on' was in exasperation, not anger. Had there been more time, I would have suggested that, in the absence of his investment in appropriately visible clothing, he should check the adequacy of his life insurance and ensure he wouldn't be exiting this mortal coil intestate - where there's a Will there's less heartache...if nothing else.' 

This does not amount to a death threat - a specific threat by Barry1858 to kill the cyclist he started an argument with. However, his comments go too far. He is imagining the cyclist's death, and going off on a fantasy about the administrative and legal arrangements connected with that death. The comment about a will seems to be an extremely bad taste attempt at a joke. 

I can imagine a person being very concerned about someone else's safety - a mother, perhaps, when her son or daughter goes cycling. That's not what's happening here. Barry1858 is imagining the cyclist's death, as a way to try to win the argument.

It isn't a specific death threat that the police could follow up. However, it does seem to me completely inappropriate that The Guardian should host such a comment, which, in my opinion, is a form of bullying.

I reported the comment to The Guardian's moderators. They did not remove it, so I assume that it isn't against their community guidelines.

I believe it's time for publications like Yougov and The Guardian to stop tolerating this: comments which, while they are not threats to kill a person, are one step removed. Comments which follow the formula, 'if you don't stop doing x, then you will die, and it will be your fault.' They appear specifically and regularly under cycling articles. If they are not against the guidelines, aren't the guidelines wrong?

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