When tabloids want to whip up a moral panic but the facts just won't fit - and why what they do is bad

If you're looking to whip up a bit of fear and panic, you could do much worse than focus on new technologies your readers are unfamiliar with, especially if you can mix this in with the behaviour of young people, also unfamiliar with your readers.  Combine the sort of outrage and complete cluelessness of the early 1980s video nasty moral panic (which actually led to clumsy legislation banning movies like the Exorcist and the Evil Dead) with the teeth-clenchingly embarrassing attack on Emo subculture or the like and you've got a powerful tool for generating fear of something previously unknown.

The tabloids have always had it in for Facebook.  News International famously owns its biggest rival, and the Mail loves to fearmonger about new(ish) things, reaching the nadir of this sort of coverage with the now infamous 'How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer'.

Or so we thought.  Now, tragically, a teenager has been murdered by someone she met on Facebook, and the tabloids - particularly the Mail - have an opening to whip up a storm of confused, quivering fright for the children.

Yesterday, the paper went with the front page headline 'Facebook under fire', which opens, "FACEBOOK was accused last night of putting children at risk by snubbing the official paedophile 'panic button'."  On page 6, a double page spread follows, with a second article also pushing the 'official paedophile panic button' an article about a prostitute who had previously been attacked by Peter Chapman and the large headlined 'I posed as a girl of 14 on Facebook.What followed will sicken you' (the headline to the online version is now changed to 'I posed as a 14 year old girl online...' and the page title and url have finally changed too) - by Mark Williams-Thomas, a criminologist and child protection expert. 

Except it isn't.  Buried at the bottom is 'Interview: LAURA TOPHAM'.  So the article isn't actually by Mark Williams-Thomas, it's just a representation of what he said.  That would explain why the article mentions Facebook when Williams-Thomas didn't actually use it for his experiment.

David Stevens has more on this, but Williams-Thomas tweeted a reply to everyone like me who asked if he'd used Facebook for it, saying:
Just to clarify the Daily Mail article experiment that i carried out & is written about relates to another well known SNS but not Facebook

Later, he tweeted:
Re- SNS article-i made it very clear in final copy to the Mail that the experiment was conducted on a SNS no mention of Facebook
So, the claim is that the Mail knew the article was not about Facebook, but pretended it was anyway.

You can see why.  Front page splash about Facebook, double page spread about Facebook - it would look weird if the big story on the right wasn't about Facebook too.  When stories are covered this way in the print version of the paper, they come as a package.*

That's another thing about this story, and it's something we might miss because we take these things for granted in newspapers, but it's another layer of dishonesty that occurs all the time that we let go because it isn't actually lying.

The spread here is about the need for a 'peadophile panic button' on Facebook.  So we have shouting for the button accompanied with an article showing how quickly kids can be targeted on Facebook, which is clearly being used to support the clamor for a panic button.

The trouble is, the person the Mail is claiming is responsible for the story about posing as a 14 year old is against the use of a generic panic button on Facebook, specifically the one the paper is pushing.

Earlier tweets by Williams-Thomas yesterday say:
The CEOP report button is not the answer to keeping children safe online
The CEOP report button does not allow anon reporting & requires name address & acceptance police may visit!!
Most children who r groomed online r not aware they r being groomed
The CEOP report button needs to be more user friendly-imagine u r a child & have a look at how easy it is 2 report a concern
So what we have here is an article billed as being written by someone that didn't write it that looks to have been deliberately distorted even though people at the paper knew that would be lying, used to push for something that the person behind it would not support in the first place.

That's not all.  According to journalism.co.uk, who have picked up on this too:
Facebook had also tried to post an official comment on the story five times, but these had not been published and the social network is asking for an explanation of this from the Mail, said Silver.
So it looks as though information that could clarify the story was actively surpressed until Facebook threatened legal action.

It's only the threat of legal action that forced the apology that now appears at the bottom of the article and on page 4 of the print version.  What kind of recourse would Williams-Thomas have had if he didn't have the weight of a corporation like Facebook Inc behind him?  What would happen if an ordinary member of the public without the financial clout to threaten the paper had had their views misrepresented in this way?  It's likely there would be a complaint to the PCC, which would have taken months to resolve and probably end with the paper having to amend the online version, and either print an apology on page 60-odd or a letter on the letters page of the print version long, long after the article has made its impact.

The consequence of this tabloid style panic-mongering is that a real and serious issue has not been presented in a way that could lead to a proper solution for a terrifically serious problem.  The grasping at a convenient and easy sounding solution, the co-opting of the views of experts who don't agree with that solution and the deliberate misrepresentation of the facts to fit the hasty, knee-jerk response the paper has prepared has damaged the debate. 

You're reading a blog post about a newspaper's dishonesty rather than one about the effectiveness of panic buttons and what can be done to help protect children online.  The solution the Mail was pushing is directly contradicting what the expert it has used says (possibly without knowing his position on the CEOP panic button).  The paper is using shrill over-emotional shouting to push something that would probably - like most moral panics - lead to an inadequate solution that does little other than create a false sense of security, and the paper's greater reach and power would drown out any carefully thought out oposition.  Indeed in this case it has even co-opted the views of someone who disagrees with that solution.

The saving grace here, ironically, is the internet that the paper is trying to scare its readers about.  Williams-Smith and Facebook's press officer managed to get this problem known more widely by tweeting it, and perhaps the paper wouldn't have acted so quickly without the possibility of word of it spreading so quickly, even with the threat of legal action.  Without the internet, all the threats would have taken place behind closed doors and the paper would have been able to wait much longer before caving and printing an apology, and that's the first most people would have heard of it.

No wonder the Mail wants to make its readers frightened of the evil, scary internet.

*It has to be said, though, that even without the Facebook label, the story could be unnecessarily frightening because we don't know what social network we're on about.  Is it one of the mainstream ones, or one of the sex ones?  We ought to know to be able to make an informed judgement.


Kayla said...

The ONLY way to keep your kids safe and still allow them to use the internet is to monitor what they are doing and educate them in online personal security the same way you tell them not to walk down dark alleys on their own etc. Don't let them spend hours closeted in their rooms, make sure all 'net access is in "public" areas of the house. And do what I have done - I get a copy of every single email that comes in and goes out from my children*. They have been taught from the first time they could use a keyboard exactly what they are and are not allowed to do/say/tell people online.

Then again, perhaps I'm a special case... being a mother who was using the internet and working in tech support almost 2 decades ago.

*This stops when they turn 18, of course. But as it's my network, I can always see what traffic goes across it anyway - the same as any employer can. The kids have also had that drummed into them for years.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Kayla, your suggestion is far too intelligent, sensible and grounded in common sense. Can't you just scream: "BAN THE INTERNET IT IS FULL OF PEADOS AND KILLERS!" it'll make it all a lot easier for the Daily Fail.

Anonymous said...

That article allegedly by Williams-Thomas got a lot of comments by Facebook users wondering how on earth it was possible to get responses from men within 90 seconds - it just didn't sound right at all. Now we know...

The story about the girl was pretty tragic but yes she made contact on FB but then used other SNSs after that...guess which one got the headline.

They really are something else.