Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

current issue

February – March 2024 : The little things READ ONLINE


Cyber spotlight

May 05 2010
Is there a Facebook site about you? Facebook, the world's most popular social networking website, has removed a number of its user groups after The Pavement wrote to enquire about its stance on groups 'dedicated' to rough sleepers around the UK.

As well as enabling users to communicate with their friends, the site, which has only been running since 2004, also allows them to form online groups, usually based on a shared interest or belief. A small number of users opted to use this facility to create groups dedicated to homeless people in their area, almost certainly without the knowledge of the rough sleepers to whom the groups were dedicated.

Readers might have been concerned, had they known that they were the subjects of an online group, regardless of whether its creators wished them no harm. People of all ages joined these groups to exchange anecdotes about rough sleepers, who were powerless to prevent information - and, indeed, misinformation - being spread about them on the site. For example, The Pavement has covered three cases in the last year where users had claimed a rough sleeper had died: the three were still alive.

The groups claimed to pay homage to rough sleepers, but the messages that appeared on them were not always positive. One typical online group, 'The Chiswick Roundabout Tramp Appreciation Society', with over 7,000 users, described a rough sleeper as "a foul-mouthed menace to society".

As well as harmless messages such as "I love him!" and "What a legend!", these groups also contained posts detailing the whereabouts and activities of people living on the streets. Users posted details such as "I saw him round the back of the Tesco in Enfield" or "He's been hanging around the roundabout". Sometimes the comments were abusive. One member of the 'Lenny the Tramp Appreciation Society' group wrote that Lenny, who lives in Enfield, "needs a bath in acid", while another accused him of insulting members of the public.

We asked Facebook whether it would consider shutting down a group that published details of a homeless person's whereabouts and activities. We suggested that these user groups were intrusive and undermined individuals' right to privacy, as well as stigmatising rough sleepers.

Facebook agreed that these user groups contradicted their own rules on what can and cannot be posted on the site, both because they invaded the privacy of rough sleepers and because certain people had used the groups to attack individuals.

Emily Clarke, from public relations group Nelson Bostock, released a statement on behalf of Facebook: "These groups have been removed as they violate Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, the governing document for the site.

"Facebook is highly self-regulating and users or content that is reported to us which violates our terms, such as attacking private individuals, will be removed. We encourage people to report any users they think are doing this, either through the report links we provide on the site or through the contact forms in our Help Centre."

Although Facebook has acted in the cases we've highlighted, this is likely to be an ongoing problem, with other groups existing and others bound to be started. In the end, it is up to the individual to contact Facebook with any concerns, and ask them to act.