I’ve rarely seen a programme talked about as much as Channel 4’s documentary Benefits Street.
The kitchen sink drama has been hailed as a gritty real life account of life on welfare; bemoaned as ‘poverty porn’ that demeans and stereotypes poor people; and proof of broken Britain. Two weeks ago no less than half of the BBC’s Question Time was dedicated to the programme (granted, it was a slow news week).
The programme has generated bytes and bytes of online debate, as people use the show to push their own line – clampdown on scroungers! Stop the Romanian invaders! End the demonising of welfare claimants!
To see what Twitter users have made of it, the research group I’m part of collected all publicly available tweets about Benefits Street over the course of a week (about 20,000, most of which occur during transmission). We then took a closer look at 800 of them selected at random. Twitter users, it would seem, are as annoyed at the producers as the residents of Benefits Street.
There are three main responses. First: about one in four (26 per cent) tweets were hostile reactions to, negative opinions about or vitriol directed toward the people featured in the programme.
I’d save everyone loads of money if I went down benefit street with a tank and killed the whole fucking lot of them
benefits street – kill the parents to save the children #suckyaself #no-qualms
#BenefitsStreet Smack your kids, you pussies. Seriously, you’ll save them being tasered by the police in the long run.
But about the same amount (27 per cent) were tweets comparing the issues explored in Benefits Street to tax evasion by wealthy individuals or MPs expenses. This included several alleging that Benefits Street distracts the public from more important political and social issues. Several campaigns were even started online to paint a fairer portrayal of life on welfare:
MPs who voted to keep the #bedroomtax collectively claimed £3.2 million for accommodation with spare rooms #benefitsstreet
If you watch #benefitsstreet, please look at http://t.co/dCWV7YiaIe & remember benefit fraud is but a fraction of tax fraud.
Concerned about the way #BenefitsStreet portrayed people supported by benefits? Here’s a petition to @Channel4 http://t.co/k6UU8i5Db4
The third set of reactions were from people who either sympathised with the characters in the show and / or were critical of the programme’s producers. This accounted for just under 20 per cent of all tweets.
I object to shows like Benefits Street that categorise and demonise. Nazi propaganda was full of scapegoating like this.
[This Tweeter fulfils ‘Godwin’s Law’: which states that the longer an online conversation goes on, the greater the probability that someone is compared to the Nazis]
The only purpose of #benefitsstreet is for some TV folk to profit from making people hate each other
Its easy to look at these people and judge them, but most people are a few paychecks away from life on #benefitsstreet
For what it’s worth, I find the programme mildly entertaining. Being a Channel 4 kitchen sink documentary, I watch it assuming it to a least a little misleading and exaggerated. The producers undoubtedly ham up certain characters and episodes for dramatic effect which, given the subject, is perhaps a bit irresponsible.
But then again it’s not their duty to produce an academically rigorous account of what goes on in the street – that’s for the anthropologists. Of course, it’s not entirely invented, and you can’t wish it away as pure fakery and hyperbole. But what I see is an extremely difficult set of circumstance for people caught and tangled in the welfare safety net, facing perverse incentives, and surrounded by low aspirations and scarce opportunities. It certainly wasn’t all plasma televisions and tax-funded parties.
There are definitely a couple of characters for whom too much sympathy is a push – where is that ever not the case? But much of the anger and frustration would be better directed at a system that sucks the life and industry out of people. On the whole, much of Twitter agrees.