The cyber-scaremongers spreading silly stories about Nazis, criminals and weird loners lurking on Facebook should shut their faces.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

Nathalie Rothschild thinks the cyber-scaremongers spreading silly stories about Nazis, criminals and weird loners lurking on Facebook should shut their faces.

The Facebook craze has given rise to some crazy warnings about the dangers of online social networking. Apparently, Facebook can cause rampant identity theft and fraud, provide a new cyber front for fascism, threaten workplace productivity or get users hooked to a sad cyber existence. Life coaches, internet psychologists, technology experts and credit information specialists have all been called upon to comment on the consequences of the allegedly self-destructive behaviour of the Web 2.0 masses.

Launched in 2004, Facebook membership was originally restricted to Harvard University students. But it quickly spread to other US campuses. The name ‘Facebook’ comes from the books of freshmen’s photos, courses and hometowns that are distributed at the start of the academic year in the US to help students get to know each other. The Facebook site soon became an international student phenomenon, and now anyone can sign up: in July 2007, Facebook announced that it now has a whopping 52million users, 30million of whom are ‘active’ (that is, they log on once a month or more).

For most users, Facebook is a convenient way of keeping in touch with friends or re-connecting with people from your past, joining online groups with common interests, promoting various causes, organising events, and sharing photo albums or book and music tips. The site also has some pretty inane features, like daily polls on subjects such as ‘What’s your favourite toothpaste?’, electronic aquariums which you can fill up with animated fish, and those silly virtual gifts (including pictures of loo rolls or deodorant cans) that you can send to your friends’ pages.

There is an element of vanity and voyeurism in the ‘me-media’ – the collective term for sites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Flickr, where users can upload and browse photos, videos or life-blogs. And certainly the online social networking phenomenon raises new and interesting questions about the blurring boundaries between privacy and openness. Yet the shrill warnings and criticisms levelled at Facebook in recent weeks are enough to make you think there is a virtual, out-of-control and naive mob roaming the world wide web, whose members must be protected from themselves by experts and internet-therapists lest they are seduced by right-wingers’ Facebook pages or robbed by menacing cyber criminals. The reality is quite different.

Several companies recently pulled their adverts from Facebook after discovering that they had been published next to the far-right British National Party’s (BNP’s) page (1). Campaign groups and MPs have put pressure on Facebook to ban the BNP from the site altogether. Denis Fernando, joint general secretary of Unite Against Fascism, says the BNP is ‘promoting, intimidating and recruiting’ through Facebook (2).

Yesterday, following the publication of new research on web-based social networking, Facebook users were told off for behaving ‘irresponsibly’ by posting personal data on their pages; apparently this leaves them open to identity fraud (3). This warning came the day after it was disclosed that parts of the Facebook site’s source code had been published on a blog. But Facebook was quick to point out that none of the personal details of its 52million registered users had been compromised (4).

It is often insinuated that Facebook users could become victims of identity theft or could be recruited by the BNP – but it is not at all clear how realistic such scenarios are. The Facebook fright is driven more by a suspicion of the apparently unpredictable and unwieldy web-surfing generation than by facts or true stories. It seems that wherever the cyber masses converge, there will always be an expert, therapist or man in white coat issuing warnings to them about the harm they might be doing to themselves and to others.

Because the web is generally unregulated and ungovernable, because it expands and changes in spontaneous ways that cannot easily be kept in check, it tends to be looked upon by some as an out-of-control, free-for-all platform for criminals, paedophiles, right-wing cranks and terrorists. Social panics and fears are projected on to the web and magnified precisely because the web can remain out of sight of the watchful authorities. Because they are largely free and experimental, human interactions online are seen as Too Risky: after all, you never know who you’re really chatting to or sharing your personal information with…

The panic about Facebook also highlights the authorities’ (and some radicals’) view of the public: they seem to see us an easily coaxed and cajoled horde, who might suddenly turn Nazi if we see the BNP’s Facebook page. They think that if they’re not there to warn us that ‘the BNP is bad’, then we will be won over to the dark side. But we don’t need to be babysat by know-it-alls. It is bad enough that the real world is governed by laws or codes on what we can and cannot see, hear and talk about; we should resist the attempts to impose such petty authoritarianism on the web, too.

The flipside of the panic about web users as potential prey is a view of the web as a brave new world of citizen engagement. If they’re not warning us about the threats hiding within Facebook, the authorities are rushing on to it in a desperate bid to engage and enthuse us. Numerous politicians now have Facebook pages to show that they are serious about ‘connecting with the public’. Having lost touch with citizens in the real world, they go online in search of ‘netizens’, clearly, but mistakenly, seeing the internet as a place where they can fix the disconnectedness they’re experiencing in the offline, political world.

Most of the millions of Facebook users do not use the site for sinister purposes or in a belief that they are forging a new global form of citizenship. They take Facebook at face value: as a form of entertainment and communication, which can be either practical and fun or mindless and superfluous. Both the Facebook frighteners and the ingratiating politicians should leave us alone on the web, where most of us are simply watching videos, recommending articles, sending messages or browsing friends’ photos. It isn’t self-destructive or dangerous, and it isn’t empowering either. It’s just fun. You remember fun, right?

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Topics Politics


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