Why Facebook Should Ride the Tabloid Horror Headlines

Britain’s Daily Mail is one of the country’s most notorious and powerful newspapers — a bastion of rightwing ideology that sells by the bucketload. And now it’s on a collision course with Facebook.

Last week the paper ran a front-page story about a recent child abuse case, in which a 19-year-old man has been charged with offenses against younger teenage girls. Its choice of headline?

“How many more victims of Facebook sex gang?”

The suggestion from the paper was that the case was part of a wider ring involving up to 50 teenagers, groomed on the social network. Police say they are “keeping an open mind” about the role that websites have to play in the case.

Facebook complained, saying it was inaccurate; executives at the newspaper tweaked the web headline for the article. That wasn’t enough for Facebook, which is now threatening legal action, according to the Guardian.

Putting the merits of this specific case to one side, there has been a marked increase in the number of spurious Facebook headlines in the British press (and elsewhere around the world) in the last couple of years. The thinking is simple: it’s a way to grab the attention of readers, most of whom will be members of Facebook.

The Mail itself has run a long string of anti-Facebook headlines, suggesting the site is “under fire,” that it “raises your risk of cancer” and in one particularly memorable headline: “I posed as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook. What followed will sicken you” (which also drew an angry response).

In fact, labeling negative incidents as the work of social networks has been a common thread for some time — not just for the Daily Mail. In one particularly horrible case going back to 2008, a number of newspapers claimed that Bebo was the link between a rash of suicides in the Welsh town of Bridgend — even calling it an online “suicide cult.” The police found no evidence of this (in fact, some parents have suggested the media played more of a role).

Given all of that, it makes sense that Facebook would want to quash the worst of these slim connections in order to protect its brand name.

But does it really help the site to fight cases like this? Of course, from a financial point of view, there shouldn’t be a problem. Facebook’s got plenty of cash in the bank, so it’s unlikely to be stuck in the position that this woman found herself in when treated terribly by Daily Mail journalists.

Whatever judgment Facebook might win in court, however, it’s likely to be a Pyrrhic victory. The headlines are unlikely to stop, at least as long as Facebook is hot.

Social networking is used by millions as a method of communication, and it’s likely to be the vector that is used for all sorts of crime. Perhaps it’s unfair to single out particular brands, but the truth is that Facebook is social networking for most people.

I’m reminded of Craigslist’s angry campaign against the use of the phrase “Craigslist Killer” in headlines. The company thought it was being unfairly labeled. It also fought against the allegations that it was aiding and abetting prostitution because prostitutes used its service. When I spoke to CEO Jim Buckmaster about the court battles, he was angry and upset, and the team spent a lot of time and effort trying to fight their corner.

What was true of Craigslist then is becoming true of Facebook now. Indeed, a Columbia University professor says Facebook is now used by 83 percent of New York City’s prostitutes and could soon become their primary method of recruiting clients.
It also looks a bit odd when you consider that Facebook did not take legal action over The Social Network, which portrayed Mark Zuckerberg in what I’ll charitably describe as “not the best possible light.”

Apparently, though, being depicted as the handiwork of a despotic, arrogant child is not as bad as suggesting that pedophiles use social websites. It’s probably easier to stomach lies when there are Oscars involved.

There’s no evidence that Facebook is responsible for the acts of criminals, though in some cases it might make their task easier. But the truth rarely gets in the way of a good story, and it’s unlikely to change the decisions of bad editors.

Facebook has better things to concentrate on. Maybe it’s time to realize that these rumors and innuendoes are merely the price you pay for being the only game in town.

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