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Credit: By Melissa Marques on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
One year ago, editors at the Daily Record removed the commenting facility on all football stories on the website due to a continued level of "unacceptable" behaviour below the line.

"We are talking about personal abuse directed against other users and members of our staff," read the statement announcing the decision in October 2012, "foul language, hate speech, sectarianism and systematic, tit-for-tat deletion of posts."

Much of the online furore that led to the commenting facility being revoked centred around Rangers Football Club entering administration and eventual liquidation in 2012. Rangers and Celtic, two Glasgow clubs together known as the Old Firm, have a historically fiery history and a climate of sectarian abuse built up around the topic between rival fans.

But at the start of September the commenting facility was re-instated and, so far, the tone of commenting and engagement from readers has not only improved but increased across the site as a whole, says Ewan Watt, digital editorial director for Media Scotland.

"We're not at the same level of commenting that we were in the frenzy last year of 40-50,000 comments a month, but each week it's getting higher and higher," he said.

Firstly, Watt said that readers have a better awareness around the levels of acceptability regarding online conversations and interaction than they did a year ago.

An anti-sectarian bill, primarily aimed at fans at football matches but extended to social media, was introduced and fitted into the growing acknowledgement of expected standards of online behaviour.

"The awareness that you can't do that kind of thing anymore became quite widespread, particularly in Scotland," said Watt, "and it's obviously been helped by other high-profile Twitter storms nationally and other cases."

More tellingly, the Daily Record has employed three young graduates to monitor the organisation's community and social media platforms.

"Rather than just waiting for reported complaints of abuse they are monitoring comments as they go on," he said. "Not actively pre-moderating comments but just keeping an eye on what things are going to be problematic and nipping it in the bud.

"Phase one was letting people know we had a more robust system, but now we're looking to actually get involved to either make people aware of the house rules or to actually keep the conversation going."

Having a social media team actively involved in shepherding and stimulating discussion has led to comments and interaction on the organisation's Facebook page grow dramatically as well.

"The initial goal in employing these people was to have them relaunch the comments and keep a lid on it," said Watt. "The second was to make people aware of other content they might not have seen and the third is in community building. Trying to get groups interested in certain subjects."

Although aware that the team is only four weeks into the new project, the fact that online behaviour in the comment section has been better than expected has freed the team up to interact more with the Record's community and feed some of their discoveries back to the news team.

"A lot of the feedback is helping to form discussions in the newsroom," he said, "and obviously that's been something we've been missing for the last year."

Commenting had "collapsed" across the site after removing the facility for football stories, but even after a month the amount of interaction has increased. Watt attributes this to the readers being made aware that a higher standard is expected of them on the site, but more so to a young team taking a more active role in engaging the audience on social media.

"A lot of our traffic is coming from a younger audience," he said," up to 40 per cent of our traffic is on mobile and they tend to read different stories. So it's important to get that point of view and understand what different groups want. That's definitely helped stimulate comments and discussion."

There is a broader range of discussion on the site and social media than the Record has ever had, said Watt, but that does not mean Old Firm antagonism had receded completely.

"Celtic got very unexpectedly knocked out of the Cup the other week by a lower league club called Morton," Watt explained. "In the past that would have kicked off with tit-for-tat between members of the Old Firm pouring really abusive scorn on each other. [This time] there was name-calling and mickey-taking but it was pretty much under control. It was almost self-policing."

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