News From The Pavement: Rough Sleepers Online

By Londonist Last edited 98 months ago
News From The Pavement: Rough Sleepers Online

This month, Pavement reporters look at the power of the internet - both to support and damage a cause, having won a small victory for those who have found themselves the subject of online fans and foes.

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By Matthew Gidley via the Londonist Flickrpool
Facebook carries a number of user groups "dedicated" to rough sleepers around the UK. Last year we began following three specific groups which we felt raised questions about privacy and prejudice. In this month's issue, Pavement reporter John Ashmore, reports these pages have been taken down, the site having agreed that these groups broke their own rules.

"The Chiswick Roundabout Tramp Appreciation Society" had over 7000 users - who chose to leave messages about a man who had appeared in the West London area. Some posted simply: "I love him!" or "He's a legend!"; but other users posted details on the individual's movements. Similarly 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. The Pavement also covered three cases in the last year where users had claimed a rough sleeper had died: all three were still alive.

Groups like these raise two important issues: Firstly the messages and accusations posted on the site are published as facts, for all the world to see, without being checked or monitored in any way. They could be read by anyone: prospective employers, old school friends, or the police. Secondly, and most crucially, the individuals concerned are not given any right to reply or defend themselves.

It is not whether harm was intended, it was not a notion even considered, and those who find themselves the subject of online groups are powerless to control the information - or misinformation - shared about them.

Rough sleepers quite often use the internet, and many will have Facebook profiles - but is it fair that someone finds themselves the subject of online criticism just because of their lifestyle? We would not tolerate this on ground of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation - so why is it titillating when someone is without a home?

The site allows anyone to set up a group on a shared interest or belief - anything from politics to pets, adverts to aliens but Facebook has agreed that these particular 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. This policy relies on individuals to sound the alarm - so The Pavement is calling on those who set up, join or have even seen one of these groups to please report them to The Pavement and to Facebook itself.

By Rebecca Wearn, Pavement reporter

The Pavement is a magazine written by a team of journalist volunteers about, and for, the homeless. The magazine covers everything, from obituaries of long term rough sleepers, to the small print changes in policy from the corridors of power. Anything that is of interest and importance to the hundreds of people on the streets of this city. This has become increasingly important in recent years, given the Mayor's plans to eradicate rough sleeping by 2012.

Last Updated 12 May 2010