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Mar 2, 2010

Facebook jerks should be ignored, not legislated against

The offensive defacement last week of two Facebook pages became a minor flap in the media. Talk of an "online ombudsman" to deal with the issue is reactionary and unnecessary, says Colin Jacobs.

There are jerks on the internet. Given how many jerks there are off the internet, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. (I’m willing to bet that the first cave painting was barely dry before a jerk came along and drew an oversized penis on one of the animals.)

Nevertheless, the offensive defacement last week of two Facebook pages, tributes to slain Queensland children Elliott Fletcher and Trinity Bates, became a minor flap in the media. Words like “sinister”, “disgusting” and “sick” quickly appeared in various articles.

Where an outraged media go, politicians quickly follow. Barely one news cycle after the story about tasteless Facebook pranks, Senator Nick Xenophon has proposed an “online ombudsman” to “deal with such incidents”, an idea tentatively endorsed by the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Queensland premier Anna Bligh wrote to Facebook angrily demanding an explanation.

This is the cue for tired cyber-libertarians to again point out the internet is global and dynamic and instructing the Australian civil service to police it might be a touch impractical. But this cycle — internet nastiness, media attention, government condemnation — is repeating itself with depressing regularity. (The mandatory internet filter and proposed crackdown on racist material online are still current news.)

Can anyone seriously imagine a government department, staffed by dozens of bureaucrats, investigating a tasteless Facebook page set up by a bored high-schooler? This appears to be exactly what our leaders are suggesting, and it’s easy to point out the flaws in such an idea. But has debating these schemes on their merits become counter-productive?

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Perhaps what we should really be discussing is whether this is an appropriate topic for lawmakers to tackle at all. The internet is a positive part of our daily lives — nobody is seriously contending that it is so broken that it needs the Australian Labor Party to fix it. When did we become so over-sensitive that a dodgy web page requires intervention by the premier, Senate and prime minister?

Certainly, the tawdriness of these pages is depressing, even outrageous, and few could dispute that. Its newsworthiness is at best arguable. So how did it become a legislative priority? Given that no serious lasting harm or economic damage can be caused by such a defaced web page, how could one seriously argue this is a matter suitable for prime ministerial comment?

Moreover, it says something unflattering about our national character that, when something like this comes to light, we turn at once to our politicians to save us. This isn’t a trait one would associate with a mature society confident in its place in the world. It’s a trait one would more likely associate with mollycoddled children.

The stereotypical view of Americans holds them to be forever demanding “offensive” things be taken down, banned, censored or zero-toleranced, and one might wonder if the same trend is happening here — where we have no Bill of Rights to stem the tide. Being offended isn’t like being physically assaulted. Like most people who read the news in this day and age, I’m offended pretty much all the time, but I can get over it and still have a productive day. Those that can’t shouldn’t be setting the bar for regulation of the media.

I submit then that next time a web page is defaced, a racist game is published, or somebody is upset by a cyber-stalker, let’s handle it calmly like adults. Suck it up.

The appropriate place for complaints is the host of the content, who may or may not take it down, as Facebook promptly did last week. Let’s leave the politicians out of it. I don’t care what the PM thinks about Facebook any more than I want his comments on a TV turkey slap. They have more important things to worry about.

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8 thoughts on “Facebook jerks should be ignored, not legislated against

  1. wyane

    There’s a quote I use when discussing knee-jerk calls for legislation. Not sure if I’ve paraphrased it from something I read elsewhere. Probably. But you may attribute it to me. It is this: “If you treat the community like [idiots|dolts|fools|stupids|[whatever]], then that is precisely how they will act”.
    This covers anything from welfare quarantining (yeah, like THAT will teach you financially responsibility), the endless proliferation of signs and public notices (cue that old song), to …. well, I said anything.
    If only the meeja and our legislators would grant the public a little credit and believe that they are capable of something a little higher. Oh, there I go being all faithful in humanity again. Silly me.

  2. acannon

    Julian Morrow gave an interesting speech last year (the Andrew Olle Media Lecture) about the ‘outrage’ phenomenon. I was going to include the link but it doesn’t seem to be available online at ABC anymore (iView or as transcript). Short blurb about it here: which quotes him as saying “the inevitable corollary to freedom of speech is that there is no such thing as a general right to not be offended”. He differentiated between those actually hurt by something (e.g. children with cancer, in regards to the Chaser sketch, to whom he apologised unreservedly) and those ‘just offended’. Much food for thought, if you can dig it up!

  3. Meski

    Confected outrage, micro-managing laura norder legislation, you’d almost think we were due for an election or two.

  4. pedro

    Hi Colin,
    While I generally agree with your argument, the statement “Given that no serious lasting harm…”

    I would beg to differ. To the grieving friends and relatives of the two deceased children I imagine there would be some very deep-felt stress over these events. Certainly memorable and life-long effect on them at such a traumatic time.

    Any fair-minded person would classify that as harm, surely?

  5. sandra.i.vaneyk

    Could Mr Jacobs please explain to this victim (and her parents) of Facebook jerks why she should just “suck it up”?!.html

    Awwww…he is just a bored high-schooler.

    Oh. Silly misguided and censorious me. That makes it all OK. Yanno, totally like, free speech and, like, all that. She is just Orfenddid ™ and should, like, yanno, suck it up.

  6. Meski

    @Pedro/Sandra: There’s only harm if they choose to visit these sites. It isn’t, after all, a broadcast medium, you have to explicitly go to the Facebook site, and then visit the offending page. Seems to me like people that are being offended and deeply stressed are choosing to be. And I have an utter lack of sympathy for that.

  7. Colin Jacobs

    @Sandra, @Pedro:

    There’s no defending the offensiveness of the vandalism. And yes, I appreciate that people would be very upset by these actions.

    However I stand by the point of my article, which is that people do not have a right to be protected from offensive incidents like this, nor is it an appropriate task for Government. As disgusting as it may be (and if laws have been broken, the police will certainly follow up) I’m not convinced Facebook’s policy of removing the offensive material once notified is so inadequate that we need the Federal Government to step in.

    In summary: The government can’t police every offensive web page on the net. I wouldn’t want them to. This problem is not sufficiently common, nor sufficiently injurious, that we ought to be clamouring to our leaders to act.



    Hi Colin
    Interesting post. I think a lot of people want to know if they can sue for this kind of action or at least try to get the criminal law involved. It is a really huge issue! We do a legal analysis of cyber-bullying and sexting at