Glasgow, swearing and inference

A press release claims to find the UK cities swearing most online.

A Scottish Sun headline states “Glasgow is UK’s most foul-mouthed city”. LADbible writes: “Glasgow Is The UK’s Most Potty-Mouthed City”.

The “recent study” was a press release from a digital marketing company. As stated in their methods note, the analysis looked at Reddit. Cities can have dedicated websites on Reddit (called subreddits).

“Which city swears the most online”? (Image: Reboot)

Analysts took ten swear words from Ipsos MORI’s research on offensive language in 2016. Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator, commissioned that work.

That report does not include a prescribed list of ten words that the company searched for. There is a table of “general swear words”, ordered in broad tiers of severity. The table itself reflects considerations of broadcasting.

The Reboot list features two of the strongest words (“c***”, “f***”), but not the third (“m*****f*****”). Their list includes “b****” and “b***s***”, which were “medium words”. The selection criteria for their list is unclear. Those choices could influence the results.

“Do you know?” (Image: BBC/The Thick of It)

Analysts listed twenty most populous UK cities with a dedicated subreddit. Pushshift’s Reddit search application found comments with those swear words and “variations”. This is a limited number of cities.

Summarising the number of swear words, they express those figures per 1,000 comments (not per 1,000 words). The length of comments may differ between the city communities. For example:

With 52,100 members and nearly 516,000 comments, r/Glasgow averages an impressive 109 swears per 1,000 comments.

Analysis of a single site is then used to claim:

We can reveal the city that swears the most online is the Scottish city of Glasgow.

The problem of induction casts its ecliptic shadow. How do we infer from those we observe (Reddit users) to those we do not (all online adults)?

Members of Reddit can join any community. You do not need to live in a city to be part of its dedicated Reddit site.

Comments on one site may not represent online adults. National Records Scotland provides mid-year population estimates of Scottish areas in 2019. For Glasgow City, the population estimate was of around 538,000 people aged 15 or over. The self-selecting membership of about 52,000 users is around 10% of the adult population. As in the US, these communities may be younger and more male than all online adults.

Also, people may act different on Reddit than on other sites. Users of one site may not represent all online behaviour for a city.

The front page is not the whole internet.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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