Opinion: A Facebook panic button would be pointless

Campaigners are calling for a panic button on Facebook profiles to protect users

Campaigners are calling for a panic button on Facebook profiles to protect users

The murder of Ashleigh Hall was tragic but blaming Facebook shows just how ignorant some people are, says Adam Maguire.

Depending on your age you may recall the surge in popularity enjoyed by chat rooms in the 1990s. In the age of the social network services like IRC seem archaic and clumsy but at their peak they were an innovative way to instantly communicate with like-minded people across the world.

You may also remember the concerns that quickly became a part of the public understanding of chat rooms during this time. Far from being a place to socialise, this chatter would tell you that they were becoming a hub for the world’s worst; a home for paedophiles, rapists and murderers who wanted to lure innocent (and usually young) people to an horrific end.

Of course chat rooms were used by the disturbed and disturbing in an attempt to do things not worth thinking about – and in far too many cases they were successful. However anyone who actually spent time in chat rooms knew this behaviour was in the vast minority and that the most depraved communications generally started with ‘wanna cyber?’

But whatever can be said about its users, the internet has matured since the days of IRC and we now have media-rich environments like Facebook to communicate and socialise with friends and would-be friends alike. Safety concerns have remained, however, and have been highlighted in recent weeks by the conviction of Peter Chapman in England, who raped and murdered Ashleigh Hall after making friends with her through Facebook.

Many prominent voices – such as that of Chris Huhne of the UK’s Liberal Democrats – have been quick to point a finger of blame at Facebook in light of this horrific case, saying they should feature a large ‘panic button’ on profile pages so people can report suspicious behaviour. Child protection and online safety groups have chimed in with a similar argument.

However such reactionism completely ignores the facts of the case – just as similar moral panic did in the days of the chat room. Quite simply, safety online is the responsibility of the individual user and no-one else and to suggest otherwise is akin to blaming a drug for an overdose.

As with all cases of this type, Ashleigh Hall did not suspect any sinister intent in Peter Chapman – or more his alias’s – online advances. Even had there been a giant panic button there to report suspicious behaviour she would not have used it, because she did not notice any.

On the contrary, as is the way Facebook works, Ashleigh Hall became this person’s ‘friend’ and volunteered to communicate with him on an ongoing basis. She then took the decision to meet with him and omitted to tell anyone about doing so, suggesting that she knew what she was doing was wrong but was willing to take the chance anyway.

When people – be they children or adults – share intimate information online or arrange to meet with people they only know virtually they do not do so with the suspicion that they may be putting themselves in danger. They do so because they have developed enough trust to take a chance.

What the case of Ashleigh Hall does show – or more the reaction to it – is that establishment figures in politics, the media and elsewhere still have a fear of technology as something ‘other’, rather than simply an enabler of human behaviour in all is forms.

There is a clear insinuation in some of the reaction to this case that the internet and all that goes on within that is some sentient being that can attack rationally-minded people when they least expect it. There is no recognition of the fact that people with concerns about other users are not the ones that need protecting, or that no design changes can tackle naivity. Likewise there seems to be no contextualisation of cases like this, such as an acceptance that similar threats exist in real world encounters and that the location of them is unlikely to be to blame when they happen.

What is needed to minimise the number of future cases like Ashleigh Hall’s is not a lip-service panic button but a proper attempt at online safety education, one that encourages a healthy suspicion without descending into fear-mongering and moral panic. This needs to be more than a stop-start campaign and needs to be part of an overall education on the internet and technology, which details and explains its benefits along with its risks.

However what is needed most is an acceptance by politicians, parents and the media that the internet is a medium and not a target board. It needs to be recognised that if bad things happen online it is because bad people exist and, in some cases, good people allow themselves to fall prey to them.

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