Facebook, trolls, temples and death threats

Filed Under: Facebook, Social networks

Thanks to those of you who have dropped me a line in the last week or so following this story on The Register, "Facebook Troll sends mob against Cluley."

As the news story explains, some pumpkin-brain on Facebook thought it would be a good idea to create some controversial groups on the social-networking website and feed the flames by posting some inflammatory language.  So far, so normal.  But what this chap also did was decide to take one of my photographs and use it as his profile picture.

Inevitably, someone on Facebook recognised my picture, put two and two together, made five, and announced that I must be the person posting the nonsense onto the website.  Furthermore, encouragements were posted to bombard both my own work email address and other email addresses at Sophos with "information about what Cluley has been up to".

All this was occurring as I was having a rather splendid holiday - with very poor internet connectivity - in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Things got progressively nastier, as photos of me and my wife were posted to Facebook (complete with rather unflattering comments about my eyebrows and where I buy my shirts).  One guy, who claimed to be with the armed services, said that he had found out where my wife lived (probably not that tricky as my surname is somewhat unusual) and was considering shooting her.  Another emailed me saying he intended to burn down my house.

facebook-threat.jpg

As my wife and I were adventuring Indiana Jones-style amongst the temples of Angkor Wat at the time you can understand why we might have felt a little alarmed as to what we would find upon our return to the UK.  The poor internet connectivity also made it tricky to contact the outside world, but I did file reports to Facebook asking them to delete the offending material.

Facebook's response was, I'm sad to say, mixed.  Maybe I've upset them in the past, but I would have expected them to have taken stronger action when presented with evidence of death threats on their network.  Instead, Facebook advised me to contact the police and only removed the photographs when I logged them as a breach of Sophos's copyright.

What The Register's news story doesn't mention is that not only were hotheaded internet users making death threats against me and my wife because they believed I was responsible for the troll-like postings on Facebook.  There was also at least one group on Facebook which was created claiming I was a paedophile, and saying that web users could visit my site at grahamisakiddyfiddler.c**t.uk.  Another group listed me as one of the "Top 20 c**ts on Facebook."

I'm used to being disliked for expressing my opinions on computer security, I've even had virus writers lampoon me in their malware before, but to be on the receiving end of death threats against my wife and accusations of being a child abuser takes things to a whole new level of seriousness.

It was only when The Register published their story that Facebook finally removed all the slurs against me and my family and closed down the discussion groups that were, frankly, out of control. 

To my mind, Facebook should have acted faster in my case.  But I was fortunate enough to have connections in the media to make my position clear.  Imagine if I had been a more vulnerable member of society, or had not been alerted to what was being said about me?

And what is Facebook doing to stop this kind of abuse happening in the first place? A quick search on their website finds literally *thousands* of groups with extremely inflammatory titles and highly vulgar language.

British readers with long memories may remember in 2000 that The News of the World newspaper published a "name-and-shame" list of alleged paedophiles, which resulted in a paediatrician having her house vandalised, and innocent families asking to be rehoused as mobs descended onto the streets.   It seems to me that as more people get on the internet and believe everything that they read, that the chances of mobs attacking innocent people rises all the time.

The News of the World was far from the most highbrow newspaper in the UK in the first place, but its decision to publish the names of alleged sex offenders brought it into even more disrepute. 

One wonders if Facebook fails to police itself properly whether it might do similar damage to its reputation and real harm to some of its users?

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About the author

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, and veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.