Stalking and criminal harassment

This morning, Laura Richard’s newsletter dropped into my e-mail box. Laura founded Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service.

The current approach, namely that stalking is a regular police matter, does not work. In my opinion, assessing and investigating stalking should become the domain of specialized task forces containing specialized psychologists, psychiatrists and IT specialists. They’d be much more efficient and effective.

  • Police now waste a lot of time and resources on “stupid shit” that is not actually stalking. It leads to police fatigue, the assumption that any new reported incidence of stalking is bound to be more time-wasting “stupid shit”. (Many police officers prefer to investigate issues like money-laundering.)
  • Police do not have the required psychology and psychiatry knowledge. It is fair to say that the stalking knowledge of the average police officer is similar to that of the average homeless meth addict. Police officers are not able to distinguish between cases that are merely “stupid shit” and cases that contain a serious threat to someone’s safety.
  • Currently, going to the police is often the worst thing to do when you are being stalked in a worrisome manner. It enrages the stalker but also confirms that he is in control and untouchable.
  • Police do not have the required IT knowledge. It is a persistent myth that stalkers always only use their own public name in digital stalking and never use advanced IT knowledge. And, unfortunately, police take any kind of printed digital matter at face value. (I could easily fake printed evidence that anyone – even, say, Barack Obama or Donald Trump – sent me an e-mail stating that he is going to kill me. If I use the name of any random local individual and print that faked e-mail to me, police are likely to accept it as evidence. Police prefer printed matters as they can be scanned into the computer system whereas any kind of other evidence “would likely get lost”.)

Specific examples?

Police clearly failed Shana Grice who was fined for wasting police time when she reported stalking, then was killed by her stalker.

Police may actually have precipitated the murder of Molly McLaren but, in any case, could and should have foreseen the attack on her, hence should have acted to prevent it, in theory. The murder of Bijan Ebrahimi could have been prevented too.

This is not the fault of the police. It is the result of police being unequipped to deal with stalking cases.

Shana Grice’s, Bijan Ebrahimi’s and Molly McLaren’s are examples of sad cases that make it into the limelight. Most don’t, yet happen anyway.

On the other hand, cases of stalking can also involve people with, for example, certain intellectual deficiencies whose behaviour puzzles other people so much that they don’t know how to deal with it and feel stalked. Police do not know how to deal with that either. Criminalizing such people (with learning difficulties or intellectual disabilities) serves no purpose whatsoever, and only does harm. It is a matter of educating the public. (I once spotted a poster about this at my local police station, from a foundation or charity.)

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/shana-grice-murdered-stalking-fined-for-wasting-police-time-michael-lane-trial-lewes-crown-court-a7637196.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/bijan-ebrahami-refugee-murdered-iran-killed-paedophile-bristol-avon-somerset-police-council-gang-a8116341.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/molly-mclaren-death-trial-boyfriend-tinder-kent-university-whatsapp-messages-a8175281.html

 

Facebook in trouble?

Facebook appears to know it is in trouble over the experiment it conducted (see previous post). On CNN, I read this morning that a spokesperson said it was research “to improve our services”.

It looks like Facebook is trying to jump through hoops. But Facebook doesn’t fit through the hoops.

When users consented to their data being used to improve Facebook’s services, most users will have assumed that this referred to services provided to the users, not services Facebook provides to advertisers. (When you’re happy, you are more optimistic, hence more likely to click on advertisements. Pessimists have a more realistic view of the world than optimists, but optimists likely see themselves as more successful than pessimists.)

And when Facebook users consented to their data being used to improve the services, they sure as hell did not consent to psychological experiments being conducted on them.

They may have expected Facebook to analyse the data and make use of the results of those analyses, yes, but they were likely thinking in terms of technology or something along those lines. Upgrading server x that delivers Facebook to country y. They may also have expected to see baby products being advertised to those who clicked on such ads and posted baby pictures, and office products being shown to people who stated that they are self-employed.

Facebook tweaking the streams of users to bring them the items it thought users wanted to see, that is one thing. I can be annoyed about Facebook not showing my friends’ posts in my timeline, no matter how many boxes I tick to try and get them to show and I can be annoyed about commercial posts I get shown no matter how many boxes I tick in an attempt to get rid of posts about products I cannot even buy because I am many miles away on the other side of the world, but that is an entirely different ballpark compared with Facebook deliberately tweaking the streams of users to make them feel happy or make them feel miserable, or even attempting to see whether it can or not.

Facebook – and the two university researchers along with it – has crossed a line, again. This time, Facebook has made an unforgivable mistake.

It is true that other media manipulate us all the time. But we expect that. We know that the BBC only reports what it wants to report and does not present an objective overview of society. We know that commercials feed us bullshit, that buying that car or buying that dress or perfume won’t make glamorous models suddenly find us irresistible. And I know that when CNN – CNN Money, that is – writes that “it does not appear that Facebook faces any legal implications”, CNN is trying to manipulate its audience too.

That does not apply when it comes to messages from our friends. It may still be true that we have one or two friends – or children – who may consciously or subconsciously try to manipulate us, but when it comes to messages our friends post combined, we do not expect those messages to be manipulated by a third party in such a way that we become happier. And we certainly don’t expect our Facebook streams to be manipulated to make us miserable.

Happy or sad?

 

Facebook could have conducted this experiment equally well after explaining what it wanted to do and allowing users informed consent. It chose not to.

The US Army provided some of the funding for this experiment. That does not help.

I have meanwhile realised how Facebook may be able to get away with this in a court of law. Facebook could claim that it was carrying out this experiment because it was concerned about the number of suicides and other problems precipitated by bullying on Facebook. It could say that it was trying to figure out how it could tweak the streams of its users to prevent such problems for its users. Unless some whistleblower provides evidence to refute this, that might very well work.

Facebook in for a major battle?

I just learned that Facebook made the blunder of conducting a massive psychological experiment on the users of its English-language version without their explicit consent. This is extremely unethical.

This is bound to have legal consequences.court

The Independent published about it today. The paper reporting the results of the experiment appeared in PNAS.

I hope to see class actions in every country that uses the English version of Facebook because this is most definitely not right. No amount of word-twisting by Facebook (or the researchers) can cover up that no users ever consented to this kind of experiment being carried out on them.

In addition, the university researchers involved in the study should be investigated and disciplined. If they were in my employ, I would sack them instantly.

They have damaged the scientific reputation of their universities and, in my view, do not belong in academia. I trust that Cornell University and the University of California will take the appropriate steps.

On the other hand, these researchers are highlighting a serious danger that lurks behind social media, but it does not appear that this was the motivation for their unforgivable conduct.