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.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.