Alistair Fairweather

The Daily Fail

2010-03-12 08:46

"I posed as a girl of 14 on Facebook. What followed will sicken you." That's the headline that might cost England's Daily Mail tens of millions of Pounds in damages.

On Wednesday the Mail, that bastion of middle-English bigotry, published it above one of their trademark exposés about the evils of the modern, technological world. It had all their hallmarks: righteous indignation, fear mongering and a bogus expert all too happy to confirm their readers' fears about all this internet malarkey.

In an interview with the Mail, "child protection consultant" Mark Williams-Thomas claimed that he had created a fake profile on the popular social networking service and - I quote - "within 90 seconds, a middle-aged man wanted to perform a sex act in front of me".

Intrigued I decided to test this out for myself. After all, I could spare the 5 minutes to set up a Facebook profile, plus the 90 seconds to hook my first paedophile. And so Cherry McSweetbottom - a winsome, 14-year-old ballet dancer from Birmingham - was born.

I set up the profile, adding a high school, music tastes and even a cute picture of Cherry in butterfly wings. Within thirty minutes a strange and terrifying thing happened: everyone completely ignored me! What could my helpless virtual ingénue do to attract the unwanted advances I so craved?  

Then young Cherry's rebellious streak kicked in and she began joining groups on Facebook with names like "Mind Blowin' Sex" and "I like older men... so what?" Just to be sure, Cherry also posted messages like "OMG! I can't wait to lose my virginity!" on the notice boards of these groups. Yet this still wasn' enough to attract any suitors, middle-aged or otherwise.

Part of the problem with Cherry is that, due to her age, Facebook restricts the kind of information she can make public about herself. It also won't allow anyone older than her to send her a private message, unless they first become friends. In fact, several hours after starting the profile I still hadn't received so much as a wink let alone a poke.

Facebook are understandably upset about the damage the story has done to their reputation in the UK. The Mail reaches five million readers, two thirds whom are over 45. In general that's the demographic least likely to understand the internet, and also the one with the most spending power and control over their family’s internet use.

Even though the Mail has since edited the online version of the story, apologised about the "error" and blamed it on "a miscommunication", Facebook are likely to sue the paper for damages.

Their spokeswoman summed it up neatly: "If you were a Middle England reader and your child was on Facebook, this sort of thing would have a very serious effect on what you thought of us."

Williams-Thomas now claims he didn't use Facebook to carry out his tests, and that the Mail's editors inserted its name into the story, despite his objections. Very convenient now that the $15bn company with 450 million customers is threatening to sue your sorry ass. Williams-Thomas declined to say exactly which service he did use for his alleged tests. Also, very convenient.

It would have taken the staff at the Mail precisely 10 minutes to check the facts of their odious exposé. Print media - particularly newspapers - are already struggling to remain relevant in the internet age. All they have left is their journalistic skills and integrity. But then again, did the Mail ever have either of those things?

- Follow Alistair on Twitter: @afairweather

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