+ Comment The Metropolitan Police is to spend £2.1m of public money funding a unit that will actively investigate “offensive” comments on Twitter and Facebook, according to reports.
Backed by a team of “volunteers”, the Met's new unit will actively seek out anything “deemed inappropriate” on social media services, according to the Sunday papers.
Scotland Yard is splurging £1.7m of its own budget on the headline-grabbing stunt, which will have five full-time detectives on its staff.
The Home Office is contributing a further £452,756 to the Online Hate Crime Hub, as reported by the Sunday Telegraph.
The five-strong hub will consist of a detective inspector, a detective sergeant and three detective constables.
The Mail on Sunday reported that London's City Hall – the office of the Mayor, to whom the Met notionally answers – has advertised a vacancy for a civilian programme manager, with a salary of £52,455, to support the five other police employees.
Andrew Allison of The Freedom Association, a libertarian campaign group, told the newspaper: “There’s a risk of online vigilantism, where people who are offended by the least thing will have a licence to report it to the police.”
The sort of “offences” likely to be investigated by the Stasi-style informant group have received plenty of media coverage recently. Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire called police last week claiming she had been sent a death threat after a 20-year-old female student told her, via Twitter, to “get in the sea”. Debbonaire retweeted the remark and told her followers: “This person has just told me to drown – I believe that is a threat to kill.”
The phrase, analogous to “bugger off”, was popularised by a passive-aggressive comedy Twitter account known for its operator's predictably hyperbolic response to tedious or self-serving current affairs news.
Meanwhile, the Siddiqui family – stars of TV series Gogglebox – uploaded a picture of themselves at a paintball game with the joke caption “ISIS training day”. A Facebook friend promptly reported them to police and anti-terror cops visited the family shortly afterwards. The Sun exclusively quoted the anonymous complainant as saying: “When you are in the media, you have a responsibility. His friends were liking and loving it. You don’t know if any of those people are genuinely ISIS supporters.”
Most concerning, though, is the sort of person likely to be attracted to the volunteer squad of fingermen charged with trawling through your social media accounts in the hope of notching up an arrest on their bedposts. The notion of citizen informers reporting thought crimes to the State has been used by countless repressive regimes through the ages, including the communist-ruled East Germany. It was said, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that up to one in four of the country's entire population had been a Stasi informant at one time or another.
What the thought crime unit's advocates fail to recognise is that the vast majority of "offensive" social media posting is simple meaningless nonsense of the sort that normal people tut at and instantly forget about. Far from there being hordes of frothy-mouthed Stalin or Pol Pot wannabes online, against whom our only defence is to catch them out, Al Capone style, on legal technicalities, we have police forces wasting their time looking into "he said, she said" whinging from the perpetually offended instead of getting out on the street to catch murderers, rapists and burglars.
Naturally, though, it's far easier to meet crime detection targets from the comfort of your desk than to get out on the street and confront real criminals. ®