The Raoul Moat Facebook debate: Time for a ‘be a critic of’ button?

Raoul MoatDoes there come a point where the free speech argument gets trumped by the need for censorship because some of the speech is a little too free?

In the days when the ability to speak to a large audience was confined to those working in the media,  it’s quite possible that any suggestion that Raoul Moat was actually a hero for tens of thousands of people wouldn’t have even been considered.

To coin perhaps the most well-worn phrase relating to anything online, the internet changed all that. People who perhaps felt their views were in a minority of one, or perhaps kept conversations many would find socially unacceptable to dark corners in pubs, can now find it very easy to find large (or much larger than they are used to) numbers of like-minded people.

At first, these conversations tended to take place on forums or bulletin boards – sometimes locked down and hard to access, sometimes not. More recently, the sheer simplicity of social networks such as Facebook or MySpace has made it inevitable that these communities would turn up in places frequented by large numbers of people.

Which brings me to my point (to get to my point before 200 words is good going, as regular readers of this blog will know): Should Facebook have taken down the tribute pages to Raoul Moat? At one point, 37,000 people had become a fan of a page called ‘Raoul Moat is legend.’ Clearly, to the vast majority of people on Facebook, he is no such thing – to the vast majority of right-minded people, he’s a killer who has taken one life, potentially ruined another (that of a police officer) and scarred a third (his ex).

Paul Taylor in the Manchester Evening News made the point on Friday that the bad guys have always had their fans – he cites the romanticsation of Dick Turpin after his execution. The difference is that now, it’s possible for those fans to speak instantly and publicly – thanks to the likes of Facebook and MySpace.

Then, of course, there’s the media interest in the story. The stories in the media will no doubt have drawn more people to the fan pages – but I don’t really want to go down the chicken and egg route here. The fact the media interest in finding the person behind the main fan page – a woman from Burnley – led to that woman taking the page down could be seen as the voice of the majority resulting in action after Facebook declined to take action.

Prime minister David Cameron was among those to condemn the page, and is reported to have asked Facebook to take the pages down. Facebook again declined. The Next Web hits out at the attempts of government to censor social media.

Facebook’s reason for not taking the pages down is that it felt the pages did not breach its terms and conditions. So free speech rules on Facebook? Maybe not. An interesting point made on Kate Silverton’s show on Five Live on Sunday morning was that many of those people who had become fans of these pages had done so so they could condemn the page.

That’s the point, to me, which suggests Facebook has managed to actually stifle free speech. You have a situation where someone can create something you might find outrageous, yet you’ve no way to argue against it, other than making yourself a fan of it and then criticising it. A bit like a member of an anti-fascist group joining the BNP to infiltrate it from within – it bolsters the membership number in the short term.

It feels as though the balance has been tipped too far in favour of people being able to say what they like, with very little scope for fair discussion – unlike on Twitter where a comment can be challenged on equal terms within seconds.

So what’s the solution? To me, it appears simple: The ‘become a critic’ button. Don’t like a theme? Sign yourself up as a critic, get the same access as a fan to make your point. It’s right that Facebook stands up to suggestions it removes pages at the drop of a hat, but by not having the facilities in place to allow free speech to become free debate, there’s a danger the pressure to censor will simply grow and grow.

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