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8 November 2019

What is shitposting? And why does it matter that the BBC got it wrong?

The implications of misunderstanding internet terminology go far beyond a minor misread.

By Sarah Manavis

Last night, BBC Sounds tweeted a clip from its popular podcast Brexitcast with the opening line “What is s***posting?” explaining the online phenomenon. In the clip, the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg explains shitposting as when “political parties or campaign groups make an advert that looks really rubbish and then people share it online saying ‘oh I can’t believe how shit this is’, and then it gets shared and shared and shared and shared and they go ‘ha ha job done.’” The rest of the presenters then laughed about a particularly hideous graphic shared by the Conservative Party on Twitter and discussed whether or not it was worthwhile sharing these so-called shitposts.

This clip could have been incredibly helpful for viewers suddenly hearing this internet term who didn’t understand what it was. It could have been a useful explainer, a good effort from the BBC to connect with younger audiences, and a step in the right direction towards demystifying online-speak.

Except: it wasn’t. What Kuenssberg defined as shitposting isn’t what shitposting is at all. In fact, the BBC got it wildly wrong.

Shitposting is, to clarify, when someone posts something typically nonsensical, surreal, and ironic online – sometimes in order to bait people into a reaction. As Guardian tech editor Alex Hern explained on Twitter this morning, “If I just post ‘Joris Bohnson’ that’s a shitpost” pointing out that it doesn’t necessarily have to be incendiary. It can be a graphic, a meme, or a set of text all with the intention of looking, reading, or sounding like shit. “Shitposting is the act of throwing out huge amounts of content, most of it ironic, low-quality trolling, for the purpose of provoking an emotional reaction in less Internet-savvy viewers,” Robert Evans wrote for Bellingcat in the wake of the Christchurch shootings in March. “The ultimate goal is to derail productive discussion and distract readers.”

The Brexitcast team wasn’t wrong to think the Tory political ads were shitposts – they are intentionally terrible graphics made terrible for the purpose of getting people to click on them and share. Kuenssberg likely read a variety of commentary on Twitter (potentially even this piece by the New Statesman) about how these graphics were shitposts at the end of October and presumed this to be the definition of all shitposting. A simple Google search could have shown her the real definition, the first three results being a Wikipedia article, an Urban Dictionary definition, and an explainer on Know Your Meme. And any of these would have shown her that political party posts are far from the only type of shitpost and are, actually, a fairly new incarnation of what a shitpost can be.

This might seem like a basic mix-up from the BBC, making you wonder “who cares beyond a seeming lack of due diligence?” But the implications of misunderstanding internet terminology go far beyond a minor misread. The opaqueness of this language to journalists, law enforcement, and even average people who spend any time online means that dangerous language can go undetected – and recent events have shown that, when it has, it has deadly (and devastatingly preventable) consequences.

The shitposting explainer from Robert Evans at Bellingcat mentioned above came after the Christchurch shooting – an event perpetrated by a man who was extremely, inextricably, deeply online. The shooter posted a manifesto before the shooting which was effectively one long ironic shitpost and even posted on notoriously horrific forum 8chan that it was “time to stop shitposting and time to make a real effort” just before murdering dozens of people. I wrote at the time that this attack was precipitated by other attacks perpetrated by men radicalised by internet chat forums, namely self-described incels Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger. I wrote that this attack could have been potentially been avoided if more people understood what shitposts actually meant. The radicalisation could have been spotted sooner and potentially before it was too late.

This stuff isn’t new. Shitposting is crucial to understanding these terrorist attacks, crucial to understanding the rise of the alt-right, and is linked to much of modern misogyny and sexual violence and some of the worst spaces online prone to radicalisation. So watching one of the BBC’s most prominent journalists so confidently give the wrong information on this topic is painful, especially when you realise that over a quarter of a million people – not including Brexitcast’s six-figure listenership – have watched that clip. For journalists to have this information so easily accessible and get it wrong is not a mistake, it is, as I wrote in March, a choice. It’s irresponsible to not understand internet language if you are someone reporting on it and, because of this screw-up, hundreds of thousands of people are walking away with a completely misguided understanding of something that can, yes, be silly, but sometimes be serious. And the implications of that are so hard to describe because they are endlessly, immeasurably wide-reaching.

It’s important to say that this Brexitcast clip doesn’t make me concerned about Laura Kuenssberg’s ability to commentate on traditional politics and people saying “bUt WhAt ElSe iS sHe MiSuNdErStAnDiNg?” distract from the important issue here. It’s the fact that even our best known, most trusted journalists still don’t think it’s worthwhile to really understand internet language and subsequently think that getting it wrong will mean very little. But by posting that clip, the BBC is literally spreading misinformation and even if they delete it, issue an actual explainer, or apologise for getting it so wrong, the damage has already been done. And yes, while it won’t make much difference to most of the people walking away with that definition, for some people it will. And the longer this language and these online ecosystems remain opaque and misunderstood by the average human being, the longer horrible shit brewing in those spaces will be allowed to run wild.

[See also: Time spent on social media isn’t necessarily bad for kids – it’s how they use their screen time]

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