Daily Mail lies about Facebook (updated x7)

[Important updates below - Facebook says the Daily Mail knew its story was untrue, but printed it anyway. Legal action is promised. The BBC has now picked up on Global Dashboard's story. Journalism.co.uk has a piece as well. Guardian has followed our lead too. Mashable. Belle de Jour chips in.]

In the early hours of this morning, the Daily Mail published an astonishing attack on Facebook under the title I posed as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook. What followed will sicken you.”

Here’s the opener:

Even after 15 years in child protection, 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.

The article is written by Mark Williams-Thomas. Here’s his biog:

Mark is a former police detective who has far-reaching experience of working at the centre of high profile investigations. During Mark’s police service, he specialised in child protection and major crime and he is renowned throughout the UK’s police forces as well as the national media for his expertise in these areas.

It’s an odd story. Facebook isn’t really a chat site – and it’s certainly not Chatroulette, where there are plenty of men ready and waiting to jack off in front of you (sfw). Presumably Williams-Thomas set his privacy settings to zero and befriended loads of strangers. But how did those strangers find him (her) so quickly?

Fast forward twelve hours and the online version of Williams-Thomas’s article has undergone some editing. New title: I posed as a girl of 14 online. What followed will sicken you. And new text, with Facebook replaced with an unnamed ‘social networking site’.

Even after 15 years in child protection, I was shocked by what I encountered when I spent just five minutes on a social networking site posing as a 14-year-old girl. Within 90 seconds, a middle-aged man wanted to perform a sex act in front of me.

The url, though, has not been changed: I-posed-girl-14-Facebook-What-followed-sicken-you.html [This url was subsequently set to redirect to a new one - 12/03/2010]

So what gives? If it was Facebook that Williams-Thomas was using, then why turn so coy? And if it wasn’t, how on earth could the Mail have pretended it was?

Update: Via Twitter, I asked Williams-Thomas for clarification. Here’s his reply:

So why was Facebook named in the first place?

Update 2: Apparently the story – with Facebook named – was a front page splash in the print edition, and then a double page spread inside.

Update 3: Just had a call from Facebook – they’re incandescent and say that:

  • Williams-Thomas claims that he was 100% clear that his social network experiment had not involved Facebook.
  • When the Mail sent him a first draft of the story with Facebook named, he asked for them to make a correction.
  • Even so, they went ahead and published a story their own expert had warned them was untrue.

When Facebook protested, the Mail corrected the online story, but not the printed version, which had already hit the news stands. Their online retraction failed to include any apology or explanation of their mistake.

Facebook says that legal action against the Mail is pending. What an extraordinary piece of negligence and/or malice from the paper!

Update 4: The Mail appended a fairly mealy mouthed correction last night:

In an earlier version of this article, we wrongly stated that the criminologist 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. In fact he had used a different social networking site for this exercise. We are happy to set the record straight.

Will they be happy to pay damages to Facebook too? Another version here, which begins: “In an article by a criminologist yesterday, we wrongly stated…” – half-maintaining the fiction that Williams-Thomas actually wrote the piece…

Update 5: From last year, another great Daily Mail headline: “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer.”

Update 6: Instead of retreating to lick her wounds, Mail journo, Laura Topham has doubled down with another article on Internet safety – again using the Facebook killer as a hook and with the same oddly prurient image from yesterday’s story.

Before her Facebook howler, Topham’s main claim to fame was dating 100 men and writing about it, outing Belle de Jour [or not - see Belle's comment], and running up huge amounts of debt because the government inveigled her into taking out a student loan.

Her big break in journalism came in 2005 when she shafted David Blunkett.

Update 7: PC Pro quotes Facebook’s spokeswoman as challenging the Daily Mail to name the social networking platform that is really to blame. I was given exactly the same message. Facebook think it knows which service Williams-Thomas used and is desperate for one of its competitors to get shafted.

A representative of Williams-Thomas justifies anonymity thus: “The reason he does not want to [name the service] is because he does not want there to be another opening for paedophiles to head straight for.” Hmm. Maybe.