Following up on yesterday’s post about the EU’s impending crackdown on social media companies, we’ve hammered out a very rough draft letter for our readers’ consideration. We’ve attempted to cover as many points as possible without inundating the poor Commissioners with so much detail that their eyes begin to roll back in their heads…but enough that they can get the gist of what happened, and understand how social media platforms must be called to account for their role in the Hampstead SRA hoax.
If you can see points we’ve overlooked, or bits we’ve included which we could probably have left out, please let us know!
We are a UK-based community group who have been working for nearly three years on convincing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, and Google+ to remove thousands of illegal posts and videos relating to a fake news story which was deliberately put online and made “viral” in early February 2015.
The “Hampstead hoax”, based in North London, made a splash in the mainstream media during 2015 when it was roundly debunked in a judgment by Mrs Justice Pauffley in the High Court, Family Division, on 19 March, 2015.
However, with the help of a group of people who have continued to publicise and share posts and videos online, it has lived on as a popular conspiracy theory.
This hoax’s continued popularity is in large part due to inaction on the part of the large social media platforms.
While some posts have been removed from the internet, the vast majority have remained intact and have proliferated via sharing, with disastrous consequences for dozens of families, teachers, clergy, and businesses. All these people have been accused of belonging to a “Satanic cult” which rapes, murders, and cannibalises children and infants, as well as engaging in child trafficking and “snuff” movies.
Effects of the Hampstead hoax
As outlandish as these allegations sound, they have prompted ongoing threats of violence against alleged abusers, and multiple arrests of would-be harassers.
- In 2016, a man from the U.S.A. travelled to London to “investigate the cult”, was arrested and charged with Harassment 4. He is currently serving a nine-month prison sentence prior to being deported.
- In 2016, two women were tried for witness intimidation and issued with lifetime restraining orders.
- One of the two women is currently facing trial in November 2018 on 19 charges, including stalking and violations of her restraining order.
- Other arrests have been made, and a number of people remain on police bail pending charges.
Victims of this pernicious fake news story have had their lives turned upside down, in some cases irreparably:
- The two children at the centre of the story have have their names, photographs, and videos shared millions of times across the internet, in the context of extreme and disturbing allegations of sexual abuse.
- These children were filmed describing lurid and horrific details including being sodomised by cult members, being forced to participate in the murder of infants, and being forced to drink the blood and consume the flesh of murdered babies. These videos, as well as videos of the children being interviewed by the police, are now endemic online, despite the fact that it is illegal to identify children in abuse cases, whether the case is found to be true or not.
- The two children were placed in foster homes once they had been removed from their mother and her abusive boyfriend, but they had to be moved three times in as many months when enthusiastic amateur detectives hunted them down, and their locations were disclosed via social media.
- Their whereabouts are now unknown, but those who believe in the fake news story continue to actively hunt for them. We have no doubt that if they are found, their whereabouts will be disclosed again, and their well-being endangered.
- The father of the two children at the centre of the story has been thoroughly reviled, and had his name and picture shared by millions online. We are not privy to his situation, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess some of what he might have experienced over the past three years.
- Children of the other accused parents, who were alleged to have been victims of the “cult”, have been investigated by social services, and have had to be under constant adult supervision to prevent kidnappers attempting to “save” them.
- Lists were released online containing the names, street addresses, work and contact details of all of those who were accused. As a result:
- They have been chased in the street, phoned at home, and received countless threatening emails and text messages.
- They have had their privacy invaded by “investigators” who scrutinised and published their every move on social media.
- Their families, neighbours, and employers have received emails “outing” them as paedophiles, murderers, child-traffickers, and cannibals.
- They have had to have panic alarms and security systems installed in their homes, and they must cope with the daily anxiety of not knowing whether someone may decide to physically attack them or their children.
- Some have been forced to move, as they fear being attacked physically by those who believe the fake news story.
- At least one person suffered a complete nervous breakdown.
Social media platforms’ response
Since the beginning of this hoax, the London Borough of Barnet, the Metropolitan Police, some of those who were falsely accused, and community-based groups and individuals have approached social media platforms with court orders and requests to remove the illegal posts. Responses from social media have ranged from excellent (Wix, Patreon, GoFundMe) to discouraging (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), with those in the latter group removing an estimated one post per 12 requests.
Legal jurisdiction used as excuse for inaction
WordPress refused point-blank to remove blogs which were set up explicitly to encourage others to harass and defame anyone they believed might be involved with the imaginary cult. They stated that they would only remove such blogs if they were presented with a court order originating in the United States, as they operate from that country and abide only by its legal system.
While it is illegal in almost every democratic country to publish material which would potentially lead to identification of children in cases where abuse has been alleged, Facebook in particular has resisted removing pages dedicated to spreading news of the Hampstead hoax, even in the face of a valid court order.
Instead, they keep the pages up, only blocking UK viewers from seeing them. The rationale appears to be that they are only compelled to obey the laws in the court order’s country of origin. Anyone from the UK who wishes to see the pages may do so via a VPN or proxy, and many take advantage of this loophole.
Lack of consistent, proactive response
Our requests to remove videos and posts have been piecemeal by necessity, since none of the larger social media companies would consider simply identifying and removing this illegal material pro-actively. We are a small group with limited resources, and it takes a great deal more time for us to identify and report a post than it does for a hoax supporter to replace it with several new ones. And so this fake news story continues to spread like a cancer.
Social media companies must take responsibility
Ideally, we would like to see the social media platforms accept their share of responsibility for the illegal and/or fake news they publish, and take steps to amend the situation:
- Once police and/or local authorities approach a social media company with a valid court order, that company should immediately remove as many illegal posts or videos as they are able to identify based on tags or keywords. Such posts or videos should continue to be removed for the duration of the court order, without further action from the complainant. When individuals identify posts which may have slipped through the net, the company should delete these posts immediately.
- Fake news is often spread via the use of hashtags and specific keywords. For example, posts about the Hampstead hoax are easily identified by such hashtags as #FreeTheHampstead2, #HampsteadCoverUp, and #RickyDearman. Once such hashtags have been identified to the social media company, tagged posts or videos can be more easily deleted. These tags should be kept on file for the duration of the court order, and acted upon with all due speed.
- Fake news can often be traced back to a few key social media accounts, whose owners post illegal and/or fabricated stories almost exclusively. When an account has been identified as a primary fake news purveyor, it should be removed and blocked from the social media platform, with no recourse to appeal.
- In 2016 we were able to persuade Twitter to remove a particularly pernicious account, @drifloud. The account owner appealed the decision and was reinstated; we protested, and he was removed again. Then he wrote an angry letter to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter. Inexplicably Twitter once again reinstated his account, and has not responded to requests to remove it since then. @drifloud has continued to post harassing and defamatory tweets about people victimised by the Hampstead hoax, daily or more often. This should not have been allowed to happen.
- Reporting tools should enable reporters to explain the exact nature of the problematic post or video. While YouTube and Twitter do offer this in limited instances, Facebook’s reporting procedures are both inconsistent and inadequate, offering limited multiple-choices which often bear no relevance to the post in question, and no opportunity to clarify the problem in further detail.
While social media companies must be made more accountable and proactive when it comes to curtailing fake news and illegal material, we do believe in the principles of freedom of expression. We are not suggesting that material should be removed simply because “we don’t like it”. Checks and balances must be put in place to ensure that the individual’s right to freedom from harassment and defamation is balanced with other individuals’ right to believe and say what they like.
In effect, we believe that one person’s freedom of speech ends where the other person’s freedom from harassment begins.
We remain at your disposal to discuss this matter further with the High Level Expert Group on Fake News and online disinformation, and to assist in the development of any proposals which may come forward as a result of your discussions.
So…ideas? Comments? Over to you!