Don’t allow maniacs to shape the internet

Britain’s illiberal authorities are exploiting the tragic ‘Facebook murder’ to demonise social-networking sites.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Last autumn, 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall, a trainee nursery teacher, was excitedly flirting with a 19-year-old boy called Peter Cartwright using the social-networking site Facebook. He was good-looking boy, too, if his profile picture was anything to go by. So it wasn’t a great surprise that she decided to take their virtual flirtation one step further and meet up with him.

Sadly, however, Peter Cartwright did not exist. The person Ashleigh met up with was in fact 33-year-old convicted rapist Peter Chapman. Posing as the fictitious Cartwright’s dad, Chapman proceeded to kidnap, rape, and murder Ashleigh, before leaving her in a ditch near Sedgefield in county Durham. This week, Chapman was sentenced to 35 years in prison. ‘For what it is worth’, Judge Peter Fox QC told him, ‘I cannot foresee your release’.

Fox’s outrage is understandable. It was a horrible crime committed by a man who is not unfamiliar with horrible crimes, having been found guilty of raping two prostitutes at knifepoint in 1996. Yet it is also an exceptional crime, committed by a thankfully exceptional man. The rape and murder of teenagers and children is not common. The rape and murder of teenagers and children having been sought out and deceived on social-networking websites is even less common.

Yet despite what experience tells us, this sad crime, like too many before it over the past 20 years, has been turned into a social indicator, a sign that something evil and ‘broken’ lurks in our midst. Hence, right on cue, chief superintendent Andy Reddick, the man in charge of the investigation, declared: ‘Her death should be a wake-up call to parents and internet companies around the world.’

A wake-up call to what exactly? A rising tide of homicidal perverts with internet connections? It just doesn’t make sense. British society is simply not suffering from some epidemic of murderous rapists. Quite the opposite in fact. As The Economist reported recently, not only has crime overall fallen by 45 per cent since its 1995 peak, but the number of killings of under-15s has ‘collapsed’ since the 1970s. According to Professor Colin Pritchard of Bournemouth University, child homicides in the UK have dropped by something in the region of 70 per cent.

But stats and percentages are not important here. What matters is an officially encouraged perception of the social world as one replete in unknown and unknowable threats. Hence the focus on social-networking sites: while our real-world social interactions, especially those between adults and children, are regulated and vetted to an unprecedented degree, the online social world, still that bit more more unruly than its offline relative, remains just too free, too informal. And it is that freedom to strike up relationships online that is seen as a threat. As the Daily Mail’s frontpage asked ‘Who’s your child talking to on Facebook tonight?’.

The official response to Ashleigh Hall’s murder, whether from charities or the Home Office, has been near uniform. ‘This case’, explained Peter Bradley of children’s charity Kidscape, ‘highlights the danger of assuming people’s identities on social-networking sites’. The state-funded Child Exploitation and Online Protection Unit (CEOP) was quick to urge Facebook to install the CEOP panic button, a means through which users can access guidance and advice, and report ‘suspicious’ activity. If parents weren’t already terrified that the internet is, in the words of the Daily Mail, a ‘paedophile’s paradise’, a big orange panic button should do the trick.

Underpinning the panic about social-networking sites being a hotbed of sexual predators and murderers is a broader, state-fostered social anxiety, a sense that we ought not to trust other people – on principle. The language of the official angst-pedlars reflects this. Online, people can too easily hide ‘behind a mask’, as Chapman did; we, the public, are too quick to ‘assume people’s identities’ on social-networking sites. The message is clear: in this ‘jungle of pitfalls and traps’, people are never what they might seem. Our mistake, as adults, as parents, is to trust, to take people as they appear to us rather than as they always potentially are – that is, really dangerous.

In effect, the Home Office, police chiefs and a retinue of children’s charities are urging us to suspect others automatically, to see social-networking services as sites of potential harm – always. In doing so, we are encouraged to overrule our own judgement, to never judge people for ourselves, but to judge them through the paedophilia-obsessed eyes of officialdom. While the focus might be on social-networking sites, the idea that we must never assume that people are what they seem, be it a scout leader or a school caretaker, is all too prevalent in our everyday interactions, too.

In the name of protecting young people ‘everywhere’, to quote the CEOP, adults ought to be seen as suspect everywhere. Not to suspect others is seen as naivety. Not to view other people as potential threats is deemed well-meaning credulity. That this should be the legacy of a teenager’s tragic death is a genuine tragedy for us all.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Martyn Perks said that, when it comes to online censorship in the name of child protection, the government is not considering the evidence. Nathalie Rothschild looked at what was behind the celebration and fear of Facebook. spiked and O2 ran an online debate on Young people, mobiles and social networking. Or read more at spiked issue Crime and the law.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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