When Facebook should be feared
by Emma Davis
Imagine discovering a group had formed on the internet, with hundreds or thousands of members, united in their hatred for you. This is the daunting reality for many who have become the despised subject of discussion forums on Facebook –the world’s biggest networking site.
Graham Mallaghan, a University of Kent librarian, was confused and worried. For weeks students had been following him around campus and taking photographs of him with their mobile phones.
Things became more sinister when, whilst leaving campus at night, groups of students would block his path and shout abusive comments. Then somebody cut the brakes on his bicycle.
Only when a colleague showed him a Facebook page, entitled ‘For those who hate the little fat library man’, was there an explanation.
The 362 member forum was now littered with over a hundred hateful comments about him.
It appeared that students had taken umbrage when, following library rules, Graham, 36, had asked them to stop talking.
But to his horror, the comments had become both personal and threatening.
He said: “Reading what people had written about me, I felt sick. It was all pretty nasty. There were remarks about my appearance and people wanting to beat me up.”
Somebody had suggested a photograph competition, to sneakily capture the “funniest” and most humiliating pictures of Graham.
Mortified, he clicked on the ‘report this group’ option -available on every Facebook forum, but there was no response.
He said: “I received no support, not even a reply from the people at Facebook, despite a few desperate emails.”
The University eventually took action and forced the students in charge of the page to close it down.
Interestingly, these students had made no effort to disguise their identity.
Graham assumes this was because they did not realise the seriousness of their actions.
He said: “The fact they made no effort to cover their tracks, meaning their profiles were entirely public, it seems they thought Facebook was a separate world to real life. And to be honest, most of the things we do online have no bearing on real life at all.”
He added: “But it must be remembered that you’re hurting a real person. And in my case there was a cross-over, the harassment came into my real life at work.”
The incident has had a lasting effect on Graham.
He said: “I always felt I had good rapport with most students I deal with in the library, which is what you hope for as a librarian, to be able to help people. So reading all the negative comments, I felt like I had failed in my job. It really shook me up and I lost my confidence.”
Lee Wadsworth, Call Handler for Greater Manchester Police, said that anybody in Graham’s position should complain to the police.
He said: “If messages directed at a person are deemed to be threatening or abusive, certainly that would form the criteria for a police inquiry.
“The police’s priority would then be to catch the offenders, but we would also hope to have the upsetting material removed.”
But Graham argued that responsibility for helping victims like him should not be a police matter.
He said: “It shouldn’t have to go that far. Facebook just need a better and quicker way of dealing with complaints.”
Liz Carnell, founder of Bullying UK, agreed that Facebook needs to be more proactive.
“It might be too great a problem to moderate all members’ postings before they are uploaded, but they should remove abuse quickly and ban those responsible.”
Should we be any less concerned if the person targeted is a celebrity?
‘We Hate Jade Goody’ is a Facebook group with over 600 members, run by 17-year-old Alex Whately.
It is not the only, or largest page expressing hate of the now dead reality television star, but it is littered with the more extreme comments, including: “Ha, Jade’s dead, f*cking fat, racist slag” and “Talentless trailer trash!! Let’s dig her up and burn her body!”
Whilst Alex was keen to be dissociated from these more lurid comments, saying that “some people clearly get carried away”, he admitted his page “openly invites any sort of criticism.”
He claimed he launched this forum in response to racist remarks made by Jade on television programme Celebrity Big Brother.
He said: “I thought her behaviour needed to be criticised, it was disgusting and like a lot of people I wanted to share my disapproval of it.”
He added, “Then when Jade got ill, she was suddenly treated like she was national hero by newspapers and magazines. And Gordon Brown said the whole nation was grieving for her when she died, which was ridiculous.”
“If people are allowed to go on the streets and declare that Jade Goody is a national hero and that she is apparently the seventeenth most influential Briton, then people who think differently should definitely be able to comment on Facebook.”
He argued that to remove these comments would be like assuming that “only what the media says about somebody is right and allowed.”
Alex said that a public figure like Jade should expect people to comment on her anyway.
He said: “Jade opened herself up to the public, not only asking, but begging for attention. She even put her marriage ceremony on the television. If you want people to talk about you, then you have to take the rough with the smooth, be prepared for criticism.”
Sandro Monetti, celebrity journalist for the LA Times, agreed.
He said: “Most celebrities I interview tell me they soon learn to stay away from reading about themselves on the internet because there is so much hateful stuff on there which people write from a shield of anonymity.
“But its part of the deal with the devil they make when they decide to step into the public spotlight, and most of them gradually develop a skin thick enough to ignore such comments. They see such hate campaigns as all part of the job.”
But Graham Mallagher believes it is no more acceptable to target a celebrity this way than it was to target him.
He said: “Jade Goody, like anybody in the public eye, was still a person with feelings and a right to life without intimidation.”
And Liz Carnell warned that we have crossed a dangerous live by making this sort of “victimisation” of anybody seem acceptable.
She said “Personally I don’t like to see any hate websites. They could constitute harassment whoever they are about.
“The big problem is that young people see these websites being nasty about famous people and think they can do the same about a classmate or teacher.”
Indeed Alex admitted he “wouldn’t think twice” about joining an equivalent group to his Goody one, about an ordinary person, if he felt they too deserved it.
He said: “Actually I don’t think it’s just about the stature of the person being talked about, but whether they deserve to be criticised.”
He added: “I have always believed in freedom of speech and I don't see a problem with people expressing their views on a site like Facebook. That’s what it’s there for anyway, to discuss what you think about things.
“It’s no different than when people have created groups in support of somebody, it is just your opinion and you have a right to voice it. If this is taken away, where else are we gonna get our say?”
Facebook representatives were contacted regarding this issue by me (Emma), but gave no response.
Due to problems with spam only SalfordOnline members can now leave comments. Becoming a member of SalfordOnline only takes a minute, just hit the red Join Us button at the top right hand side of the page to create your Personal account.