Policing benefit bashing in the forum: valid debate or hate crime?

Benefits discussions on the forum

Benefits discussions on the forum

The UK’s in the midst of the biggest benefits policy changes for a generation, and of course that’s reflected in the MSE forums, the UK’s biggest place to discuss money.  Yet the team and I are dismayed and infuriated; one person has accused us of being “complicit in a hate crime” because we allow benefits to be discussed on the forum.

Even though a mass of others shot this opinion down, it’s still particularly galling. For years my team and I have worked hard to ensure people claim their tax credits and benefits and maximise them, and we’ve tried to get people to overcome the stigma of claiming.  

Perhaps it’s just complete ignorance of what a web forum is, though I’d think it pretty obvious that the view in the forum doesn’t necessarily reflect our view.  Yet I want to explain exactly how things work.

MoneySavingExpert.com’s view on benefits

We have adopted a non-partisan stance on taxes and public funds. It’s the job of elected officials to decide on policies, not us. However we think:

“People should be helped to claim all the entitlement they are legitimately entitled to under the current system.

For example within the state pension guide, we urge the 2 million pensioners who are entitled to pension credit, but don’t get it, to claim. 

While we do campaign on these issues, we’re far more focused on the process than the payout. 

Examples include the terrible system where individuals confusingly need to choose an ‘appeal’ or ‘dispute’ form over a tax credit overpayment; or the poor design of stamp duty as a tax, rather than the amount charged.

The MSE Forum’s view on benefits

This is much trickier, even though it’s on MoneySaving, on its own the forum’s in the top ten UK social networking sites, with millions of visits per month. Over 30 paperback books of information are written there every day, so of course the team and I don’t read even a fraction of it.   

Asking what the ‘forum view’ is a bit like asking what the ‘public’s view’ is. The answer is it’s split into 1,000s of separate and often conflicting thoughts.

As a classic Wet Liberal,  I find some of the views about benefits policy posted in the forum abhorrent. Yet I don’t think that’s a reason for banning them. But the aim of the forum is to help those with MoneySaving questions, including about benefits.

That’s why we’ve developed a specific policy in the benefits board. Here’s a cut ‘n’ paste (with a bit of grammar improvement) of my post on the rules there:

It’s about helping people get their entitlement! Not about benefits policy!

This board is here for help and support for those on or looking to claim benefits, not for judgement.

Its ONLY focus is helping people with their money.

It’s here to help people find out what they are entitled to under the current system, and to help them get it.

Benefits provide a lifeline for many, and this site is here to help people with their money, and not to judge. Of course, how to illegally defraud the benefits system shouldn’t be discussed here, but ensuring you’re getting your entitlement is exactly what it’s about.

We all know the benefits system is a mess – but that’s for the discussion time board.

Whatever you’re political persuasion, we’re all aware the benefits system is a mess. Whether it’s the malpayments of tax credits, benefit fraud, or simply the fact that sometimes it doesn’t pay to work – everyone has their grumble.

Yet to discuss the benefits system itself and issues around it, the appropriate place isn’t here but the Discussion Time board and even there, please remember courtesy and not to make it personal about anyone. This site’s prime purpose it to help people with their money and I will always act to protect that.

Thanks for your co-operation”

As you can see we have deliberately split up discussion about benefits policy and asking for help, so that we don’t have people making judgements on individuals.  If that does happen we ask people email abuse@moneysavingexpert.com so it can be dealt with.

We help people get what they're entitled to

We help people get what they're entitled to

Why allow benefit bashing in the discussion board?

The MSE forum is a place for people to discuss issues relating to money, and while we may disagree, some express widely held views against the current benefits policy.    

If we didn’t allow it there, we’d get it on the benefits board itself, which is much more damaging, and I don’t believe I have a monopoly on correct opinion.

The two boards are a great distance apart, you’d need to choose to go to the discussion board (which only registered users can see) to see the content, so people looking for help on benefits shouldn’t stumble across it.

The only way for me to ensure anti-benefits views that may upset people are never posted on this forum would be to shut the entire forum.

Look at every newspaper site, every political party site, every web forum, and more and you’ll see similar disparate views on benefits. After all we spend more on social services than we do on health, or education or defence. However what I won’t do is have my forum be a place where individuals are abused, that is what we try to protect.

What’s acceptable?

This is our nightmare, we don’t have the wisdom of Solomon. We see the appalling word ‘scroungers’ used by major newspapers every day.   Let me give you an example of controversial posts (made up examples):

  • “Did you see that benefits scrounger in the paper claiming £10,000s in disability payouts, while he’s still playing football? People like that are scum.”
  • “We give too much money in social services in this country.  People need to be encouraged to work, we should cut off ALL benefits let people fend for themselves, if they starve, they’ll soon get work.”

Should we allow these types of posts? Should we ban them? The forum isn’t a free speech forum, so we could press delete for any post like this, but is that pushing the censorship button too far?

The language in the first post is nasty, but I suspect it’s probably similar to the way a tabloid would present this.
The concept in the second post is pretty offensive, yet it’s presented in a rational way of someone’s viewpoint. One I would strongly disagree with, but is that a reason for banning it?

And it gets more complex. Many complaints come in about a long discussion, where a comment in a thread of over 100s of posts is reported as abusive, yet judging it out of context is very difficult.

The MSE Forum is a place to discuss

The MSE Forum is a place to discuss

What to do if you disagree with posts?

There are of course many views posted too from people who defend the system and benefits claimants. If you disagree with someone’s view, polite & measured debate is a great response. But becoming argumentative will never solve the problem, and only make the forums an unpleasant place to be.  

We always consider personal aggression and abuse a more serious issue on the forums. If someone posts a view you find offensive, and you reply being personally abusive to them, rather than rebutting their points, there is a chance you’ll be the one who loses their privilege to post. 

Recently my forum team have been subject to some disgustingly viscious attacks, one poster writing almost threatening language because the team hadn’t responded to a post twenty minutes earlier on a Saturday night. That’s not acceptable, remember I’m actually an employer and need to protect my staff from such outrageous attacks. 

Ours is a free forum without ads, we will always respond within two working days, and usually much much quicker, but some patience needs to be adopted.  It’s not easy, and we don’t always get it perfectly right, yet this is an important subject of national debate, and I don’t particularly want to curtail it. However it must stay in the discussion board only, and never be personally directed at individuals posting on the site.

If that’s what some believe is being complicit in hate crime, then I’m upset, but I won’t change a thing. But if you spot a post you believe is abusive, then please don’t just complain, or attack, often it’s ‘trolling’ to get a response. Just report it and let us deal with it.

Comment and Discuss