The issue of policing Facebook was raised in Australia this week after the tribute sites to two murdered Queensland youths were defaced by pornography, bestiality and statements about one of the alleged killers prejudicial to a fair trial. It didn’t help that the crimes were extremely emotive. Twelve-year-old Brisbane student Elliott Fletcher was killed after being stabbed in a school playground brawl and a 13-year-old is charged with his murder. And 350km north in Bundaberg, 8-year-old Trinity Bates was found murdered near her home after being abducted from her bedroom.
With eight million Australians (a third of the population) now on Facebook, it was natural the social networking site would be a central point of communal grief over the murders. Thousands of sympathisers flocked to the tribute sites of both children. However it wasn’t long before they descended into grubbiness. On the page dedicated to Fletcher, photos and messages started appearing of murder, child porn, race-hate and bestiality forcing the removal of the page. A similar thing happened to the Bates tribute page where posters also called for the death of the man accused of Trinity’s murder.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh wrote a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asking whether he could do anything to prevent a recurrence of these types of incidents. Bligh said the posting of pornography and illegal messages on tribute sites for Bates and Fletcher had compounded the grief over their deaths. “To have these things happen to Facebook pages set up for the sole purpose of helping these communities pay tribute to the young lives lost in the most horrible way adds to the grief already being experienced,” Bligh wrote. “And it is something no parent should have to deal with when coming to terms with the loss of their child.”
Facebook’s Director of Communications and Public Policy Debbie Frost said the site had rules to check content and reviewers were quick to respond to reports of hate or threats against an individual, pornography, or violent photos or videos, and would remove the content, and either warn or disable the accounts of those responsible. “Facebook is highly self-regulating, and users can and do report content that they find questionable or offensive,” Frost said. In the Fletcher case, the most Facebook could do was remove the groups and disable the accounts of those responsible. “It is simply not possible to prevent a person with a sinister agenda from undertaking offensive activity anywhere on the Internet where people can post content,” said Frost. “Nor is it really possible in real life.”
News Ltd’s The Punch pointed out inconsistencies in the calls for the death of the person charged for the murder. “If this happened in a newspaper or on a major news website,” The Punch’s editor Paul Colgan wrote, “the editor would be at risk of going to jail.” Colgan was alluding to the vexed issue whether social network entries are publications under the law. He also raised questions on “the ongoing safety of general Facebook users and what the company is doing to protect the public from being exposed to unsolicited pornographic or obscene material”.
Social networking maven Laurel Papworth said Facebook cannot be held responsible for the actions of people using the site. Papworth told the ABC she was “actually quite scared of Facebook starting to act as censors of our discussions.” She said other people created the pages and with 400 million members worldwide it is like asking Australia Post to be responsible for letters that they deliver or telcos to be responsible for dodgy SMS messages. “It’s not their responsibility to be the police of humanity,” she said. “We still get spam, but we have learnt now to put it into the spam folder and move on.
Attitudes and the law will adapt to the way people use new technologies. A moral panic against the technology will sell newspapers but it won’t solve the problem highlighted by the Fletcher and Bates cases. That’s not to say Facebook are blameless. Their tendency to treat privacy issues in cavalier fashion will haunt them as the worldwide user base rapidly approaches saturation point. Daniel Solove wrote about the issue in The Future of Reputation.
“Although the internet poses new and difficult issues, they are variations on some timeless problems: the tension between privacy and free speech, the nature of privacy, the virtues and vices of gossip and shaming, the effect of new technologies on the spread of information, and the ways in which law, technology and norms interact. New technologies do not just enhance freedom, but also alter the matrix of freedom and control in new and challenging ways”