Foul-mouthed mothers are causing problems for Mumsnet

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Such streams of expletives are causing trouble for Mumsnet. On August 19th the Times reported that sponsors were threatening to pull adverts from the website. Among them were Confused.com, a price-comparison site, the National Trust, a conservation charity and Bulgari, a jeweller. They are reportedly wary of being associated with increasingly foul-mouthed mothers. Are they right to fret?

To answer this question, The Economist examined over 200,000 discussion threads from one of Mumsnet’s most popular forums. We looked for instances of the words that Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, deems offensive. The analysis does not capture every curse. Some mums choose to self-censor; others use knowing acronyms (CF, for instance, means “cheeky fucker”). Nevertheless, a clear trend emerges from the number-crunching: swearing is indeed on the rise.

The occurrences of what Ofcom deems the “strongest” language (think C-words and F-bombs) have tripled since 2008. Terms which it considers “strong” and “medium” have also increased, at a slower pace. This appears to be at the expense of “milder” cursing (such as “God” and “bloody”), the prevalence of which has declined by a quarter.

Unsurprisingly, nothing gets online mums more riled up than talking about their relationships. Much of this is venting about husbands’ emotional distance, flagging libido or adulterous tendencies. By contrast, debates about the book of the month elicit, on the whole, much milder language.

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What makes a tweet believable?

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At times of natural disasters, terror attacks or unrest, Twitter lights up with first-hand experiences, emotion, rumours and speculation. The bigger the news, the more sensational a story, the more noise there is, the further information travels and the harder it becomes to detect the truth. Yet this is when it is also most important to sort out fact from fiction from the frenzied maelstrom of social media.

That’s when swearing comes in. Cussing is one of the clues to figuring out whether a tweet is coming from someone caught up in a major news event rather than a fraud. Letting off a string of expletives seems a natural reaction to a life-or-death scenario.

The f-word turns out to be one of the ingredients in the magic formula sought by scientists studying how to automatically rank the credibility of individual messages. At times of stressful events, such as a plane crash or natural disaster, swear words tend to suggest a message comes from someone in the middle of it all.

Scientists trying to detect the language of truth are less concerned about the actual content of a message. For them, the clues to truth lie in the wording and punctuation of a message.