Defaced Facebook tribute sites ‘ultimate in shock value’

By Larissa Ham and Ellie Harvey
Sydney Morning Herald
February 24, 2010
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Social media experts have described those who posted offensive messages and pornography on two Facebook tribute sites dedicated to children as “opportunistic vandals”, as the social media giant calls on users to step up their privacy controls.

Supporters of the sites rushed to have the pages closed down after distasteful messages were posted in Facebook tributes for Trinity Bates, an eight-year-old girl murdered in Bundaberg yesterday, and Elliott Fletcher, a 12-year-old boy alleged stabbed to death last week by another student.

Melbourne University’s Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a lecturer in public policy, said defaming such sites was in essence a type of vandalism.

“It’s opportunistic vandalism where you actually have a captive audience,” she said.

“It’s something the news media is going to scan constantly, and by the same token they (the vandals) are going to get a large audience.”

Dr Rosewarne said pornography was meant to shock, and placing it on a tribute site, especially that of a child, would by seen by some as the ultimate in shock value.

While there is no Australian spokesman for Facebook, an emailed statement from the US said that while the site was highly self-regulating, but was intended to be a place where people respected others’ rights and feelings.

“When sharing an opinion turns into direct statements of hate or threats against an individual, for example, or when users upload nudity, pornography, or violent photos or videos, the professional reviewers on our team take quick action to respond to reports, remove the content, and either warn or disable the accounts of those responsible,” director of communications Debbie Frost said in the statement.

Ms Frost said in the case of Elliott Fletcher, Facebook responded to reports by users, removing the groups and disabling defamers’ accounts.

“We strongly anyone who creates a page or group on Facebook to use the specific privacy controls to manage their pages or groups they set up, and block or ban anyone who tries to post offensive content,” she said.

Mark Pesce, an honorary associate in the digital cultures program at Sydney University, said the behaviour of “haters” – people who purposely wreak havoc – was not new, and the real problem was when they were given an “anonymous megaphone” online. They were also known as “trolls” and often, if their accounts were deleted they just set up another.

“Unless you’re a true sociopath, you’re not going to do this behaviour in any way that’s public,” he said. It was amplified further, he said, by the fact that most people in these groups were young, and grieving.

“I don’t think anyone has any sense of what the boundaries are for Facebook, and that’s not a good thing,” he said.

“There’s no way [Facebook] could police all speech, and it’s not really Facebook’s job to police all speech,” he said.

“[But] we also really don’t know what Facebook is willing to put its foot down about.”

Mr Pesce suggested education around identifying hate speech was an important step in managing the problem.

He also said people needed to set up private groups if they wanted to grieve, which let a “human social network, not the tool … keep that network safe and strong”.

Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson described the defaming of the sites as disgusting and sick behaviour.

Mr Atkinson said police were doing all they could to track down and prosecute anyone who had posted illegal material on tribute pages for the two dead children.

“Obviously, it is an offence to publish offensive, pornographic material and as with the Elliott Fletcher case, and certainly with this one, if we can prosecute anyone we will,” he told the ABC.

He said the two cases highlighted the need for a public debate about the way social networking sites such as Facebook were controlled.

“I think there is a broader debate here about Facebook sites generally and about the control and establishment of them and the obvious ability for them to be hijacked by people who really, quite frankly, have very sick values,” he said.

He said police faced challenges in such cases, as posts were often made from overseas.

Alongside the offensive posts, many Facebook users have posted genuine messages of grief about the girl’s killing.

“You’re in a better place now. My heart goes out to your family, I’m so sorry for your loss,” one post read.

“When they catch the killer I hope he gets treated so bad cause they don’t like people like that in jails,” said another.

“I had tears in my eyes this morning when I heard this … as I have a daughter the same age. What a mogrel (sic) my heart goes out to the family,” a third post said.