Facebook May Sue Daily Mail Over ‘Sex Gang’ Headline

Legal action could follow a Daily Mail headline that linked Facebook to a paedophile gang

Facebook is reportedly threatening legal action against the Daily Mail newspaper, after it printed an article implying that a paedophile ring in the South West of England had used the social network to groom children.

On 18 February, Daily Mail editors used the headline “How many more victims of Facebook sex gang?” on a story about police writing to parents in Torbay, warning them of an ongoing “complex child abuse investigation” in the area. However, Facebook claims that there is no evidence that the social network was used to facilitate the crimes.

The Mail’s headline was partly based on a statement by detective inspector Simon Snell, who said that detectives were investigating whether the victims were targeted on social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo. He also said that grooming of children in the area “may have occurred on the Internet”.

However, Devon & Cornwall police reportedly indicated in private that sites such as Facebook were not used as grooming tools in this case, but as a communication tool for potential witnesses and victims.

No apology from Daily Mail

Following the complaint from Facebook, the wording of the headline on the newspaper’s website was changed, and the story has since been heavily re-written, removing all references to the social network. Facebook has also demanded a written apology, but the Daily Mail claims it has no reason to apologise.

A spokesman for the paper said “we stand by our story”.

This is not the first time that Facebook and the Daily Mail have clashed over grooming accusations. In March 2010, Facebook threatened to sue the newspaper, after it published an article suggesting children who used the site would be approached by paedophiles.

The report in the Mail claimed that young girls who set up profiles on the social networking site were likely to be approached “within seconds” by men seeking sexual favours. However, it emerges afterwards that the reporter was not using Facebook for his research but a different, unspecified social network. The reference to Facebook was reportedly introduced by editors at the paper, despite being told it was wrong.

Is Facebook responsible?

Facebook says that it cannot be held responsible for the illegal actions of people who use its service, and that such stories cause serious brand damage. The company added that grooming can take place using a wide range technologies and websites.

Facebook has come under increased pressure during the last year to protect young people using the social network from paedophiles.

In July last year, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP) succeeded in persuading Facebook to add its child protection “panic button” to the site, after months of pressure from media and politicians. The decision was made following the murder of 17-year-old Facebook user Ashleigh Hall by serial rapist Peter Chapman.

In January, researchers at Lancaster University also unveiled a mobile phone application, that can link in with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, designed to help children distinguish between friends their own age and adults masquerading as children online using language analysis technology.