Facebook Threatens Lawsuit Against Daily Mail

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Facebook is threatening to sue the Daily Mail, after the newspaper published an article suggesting children who used the site would be approached by paedophiles

The Daily Mail could be facing legal action from Facebook over defamatory statements, after the newspaper published an article claiming that young girls who set up profiles on the social networking site are likely to be approached “within seconds” by men seeking sexual favours.

The article, published both in print and on the newspaper’s website on 10 March, detailed how the journalist, Mark Williams-Thomas – who also runs a child protection consultancy – posed as a 14-year-old girl online.

Facebook allegation withdrawn

“Even after 15 years in police detection I was shocked by what I encountered when I spent just five minutes on Facebook posing as a 14-year-old girl,” the article read. “Within 90 seconds a middle-aged man wanted to perform a sex act in front of me. I was deluged by strangers asking stomach-churning questions about my sexual experience. I was pressured to meet men with whom I’d never before communicated.”

However, it has since emerged that Williams-Thomas was not using Facebook for his research but a different, unspecified social network. In a message on Twitter he claims that the reference to Facebook was introduced by editors at the paper, despite being told it was wrong.

“I made it very clear in final copy to the Mail that the experiment was conducted on a SNS [social networking site] no mention of Facebook,” he tweeted.

The article was originally published under the headline “I posed as a girl of 14 on Facebook. What followed will sicken you.” All references to Facebook have since been removed and replaced with “a social networking site”. The headline has also been changed so that it now reads “I posed as a girl of 14 online. What followed will sicken you.”

The paper has also published a public apology for the error, admitting that “In an earlier version of this article, we wrongly stated that the criminologist had conducted an experiment into social networking sites by posing as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook … In fact he had used a different social networking site for this exercise. We are happy to set the record straight.”

Implausible Claims

In several cases it was impossible for the scenarios described by Williams-Thomas to have occurred on Facebook. In particular, the social network’s privacy settings mean that a 14-year-old girl could not receive a message from anyone unless they were a friend or shared a school network, and the site does not have video chat, as implied in the Mail’s original story.

However, a UK spokeswoman for Facebook said that the company was still considering legal action due to the brand damage that has been done. “If you were a Middle England reader and your child was on Facebook, this sort of thing would have a very serious effect on what you thought of us,” a Facebook spokeswoman told The Guardian.

The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that Facebook representatives were initially unable to get any response from the paper to their appeals for corrections. Attempts by its PR agency to post comments on the piece with clarifying text were also unsuccessful.

The issue of children’s safety online has been in the spotlight over the past week, after Peter Chapman (33) was convicted for murdering 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall. Chapman had got in touch with Hall via Facebook, leading to criticisms from some senior police officers over the dangers of social networking sites.

February saw the launch of the UK government’s online safety campaign, advising kids to “Zip it, Block it, Flag it” and use a panic button which contacts the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP) when faced with anything inappropriate online. Facebook has declined to add the CEOP button to its site, arguing that it already has global protection mechanisms beyond that offered by the UK-based agency.

Williams-Thomas is standing by his decision to keep the identity of the social network he used anonymous. “He does not want there to be another opening for paedophiles to head straight for,” said his spokeswoman.

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