Facebook considers legal action against Daily Mail over underage sex claims

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The Independent Online

The world’s biggest social networking site Facebook is today considering legal action against the Daily Mail, after the newspaper published false claims that a criminologist who had posed on the site as a teenage girl had found himself immediately inundated with sexual messages from adult men.

Facebook last night issued an unprecedented statement expressing its “extreme concern” at the damage caused to the company’s image. The statement followed consultation with the company’s American bosses who were said to be shocked at the behaviour of the newspaper, which yesterday published an apology for the article.

The Daily Mail report, attributed to former police detective Mark Williams-Thomas, carried the headline “I posed as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook. What follows will sicken you.”

The article stated: “Even after 15 years in police detection I was shocked by what I encountered when I spent just five minutes on Facebook posing as a 14-year-old girl. Within 90 seconds a middle-aged man wanted to perform a sex act in front of me. I was deluged by strangers asking stomach-churning questions about my sexual experience. I was pressured to meet men with whom I’d never before communicated. So I wasn’t surprised that a vulnerable teenager, Ashleigh Hall, was groomed on Facebook before being brutally raped and killed.”

But in yesterday’s newspaper the Mail carried an apology on page 4 which admitted that, when Williams-Thomas conducted his experiment he had not been using Facebook at all, but an entirely different and so far unspecified social networking site. “In an article by a criminologist yesterday we wrongly stated that he had conducted an experiment into social networking sites by posing as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook with the result that he quickly attracted sexually motivated messages,” said the apology. “In fact he had used a different social networking site for this exercise. We are happy to set the record straight.”

In issuing its own statement last night, Facebook said it was still weighing up the damage caused by the article and considering whether to sue the paper for damages. “We are extremely concerned by the behaviour of the Daily Mail, who have since corrected the story somewhat and made some clarifying statements. We should all be concerned that their refusal to name the network they did use for the experiment is not helping to expose the real places where people are vulnerable online. We are in discussions with them and have not ruled out legal action,” read the statement.

It is understood that, after the Mail article was published, Facebook, which immediately doubted the authenticity of the claims, set up a couple of dummy teenage profiles to test its own security procedures and neither of them attracted any activity.

Williams-Thomas is unhappy at the way his article was presented. In a posting on the microblogging site Twitter he said: “I made it very clear in final copy to the Mail that the experiment was conducted on a SNS (social networking site) no mention of Facebook.”

Sylvia Tidy-Harris, a spokeswoman for Williams-Thomas, said that the article had been credited to the criminologist but had been edited from a telephone interview conducted with the former detective by a Mail journalist.

“He has never, ever said it was Facebook. We have told Facebook that Mark never said in any way shape or form that it was Facebook and it couldn’t be because you are not able to do that on Facebook. Mark knows the chief security officer at Facebook, they met in Dallas last year.”

Tidy-Harris said that Williams-Thomas had been filmed conducting his experiment, originally done for another project, and had sent a link of the film to the Mail journalist. The film made it clear the site used was not Facebook, she said. The Mail’s article was forwarded to Williams-Thomas but when he complained he was told that it was too late to make any changes. Asked why Williams-Thomas has not identified the site on which he conducted his experiment, she said: “The reason he does not want to do that is because he does not want there to be another opening for paedophiles to head straight for.”