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Fear of Facebook

Police receive only 7,545 calls about Facebook this year, but right-wing press finds reasons to be f

News just in from the Daily Mail – Facebook is a hotbed of criminal activity, with 100,000 crimes "linked" to the social networking site in the past five years. "The Facebook crimewave hits 100,000 in the last five years", read the Mail's Tuesday headline.

It certainly seems a worrying statistic and, indeed, the NS has not been alone in pointing out some of the privacy fears surrounding social networking sites such as Facebook.

But dig beneath the Mail headline a little and one might feel a little less panicky. Facebook is the most visited website in the UK, attracting an estimated 25 million unique visitors this year, up from 22.7 million unique users in 2009. The police said they received 7,545 calls in some way related to Facebook this year – that's 0.03 per cent of those who used the social networking site in the UK.

The police receive millions of 999 calls a year; they get over 80,000 a year alone from people unintentionally dialling 999 on their mobile phones.

Of course, you could argue that anyone resorting to calling the police with reference to Facebook must have had pretty good reason to do so. Until you remember that just recently someone called the police about her stolen snowman. People have called the police about squirrels fighting in the back garden, birds singing too loudly on the roof and other life-threatening matters.

It's also worth noting that when it is reported that 7,545 calls were linked to Facebook, not all were people complaining about stuff that happens to them on Facebook such as obscene or aggressive messages, but also people worried about things they think might be about to happen. So the police were alerted to potential or alleged acts of terrorism, possible sudden deaths, possible frauds, possible sexual offences, hate crimes yet to come and possible firearms offences, as well as bullying and harassment.

One might argue that, with over one-third of the UK's population having used Facebook this year, it's a wonder only 7,545 mentioned Facebook when contacting the police. As a Facebook spokesperson said, while there is a correlation between the site's growing size and the number of calls to the police, there is no evidence to suggest that use of Facebook was the cause or carrier of these criminal acts, if indeed they all turned out to have warranted a 999 call in the first place.

Apart from anything else, think of how many people will have reported that one of their Facebook "friends" has gone missing.

Jason Stamper is New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.