Even Grandmothers Can Be Online Trolls

U.K. company Saga shutters its social media site for seniors after online trolls produce a stream of abuse and mayhem.

Gary Flood

February 6, 2013

3 Min Read
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The dangers of social media openness have been underlined by news that a social media site for older consumers has been taken offline due to offensive remarks by British "silver surfers."

Saga is a well-known U.K. brand offering travel packages and financial products aimed at older people, and it enjoys an enviable reputation of trust. The company had been attempting to service over 50s equally well in cyberspace, setting up an online forum called Saga Zone. The relatively basic site was dubbed "Facebook for Grannies" by the allegedly more hip, and the system soon attracted many thousands of registered viewers, although the number of regular contributors seems to have been more like the low hundreds.

Well, those "Grannies" seemed to catch on pretty quick -- and become expert trolls and flamers before long. Saga has closed the site due to unrestrained posts from its users, stating on its home page that it is now read-only and the whole thing will be taken down later this month.

[ Can you pick out the most relevant wheat from the social media chaff? See Are Universal Social Engagement Standards Possible? ]

What went wrong? Saga Zone's home page now says, "Recently there have been complaints about content posted in the Soapbox and Debate Zone. We closed these areas of the site but people continued to post controversial and offensive content on other areas of the site." Specifically, the company said there were "some particularly vicious exchanges recently" between posters commenting about events in the Middle East that had degenerated in to a stream of anti-Semitic or anti-Arab comments.

Saga spokesman Paul Green told The Telegraph that, "We discovered what I believe are called trolls with multiple online personalities, because messages were coming from the same computer -- sometimes with names from both sexes." When the volume of illegal, offensive and hateful remarks got too high, the company felt it had to step in.

The company said it took the move deliberately to protect its brand reputation. "An online free-for-all might be alright for other social networks such as Twitter but expectations are different when there is the Saga logo in the top right-hand corner," Green told The Telegraph.

The Saga Zone home page says, "Saga Zone is in a Saga branded environment and when members post content that others find offensive on a company's website it can impact how the company itself is viewed. We are sad that the site has been used to post offensive messages and that we cannot continue to run Saga Zone with the threat to the brand that this content poses."

The news poses some interesting questions for some U.K. observers on how to best police the Twittersphere. There have been a number of incidents in recent months where offensive remarks have led to prosecution, but this week Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions, said too many investigations into comments on social networks would have a "chilling effect" for free speech in the country.

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