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Weekly cleared of wrongdoing over fake Facebook profile

Facebook logoA weekly newspaper which set up a fake Facebook profile has been cleared of any wrongdoing after a former business chief complained to the press watchdog.

A complaint was made to the Independent Press Standards Organisation about the Dartmouth Chronicle, which alleged a reporter had used an account set up by the paper on the social networking site to engage in subterfuge.

The account was set up several years ago by the Chronicle, part of South Hams Newspapers, under the name ‘Stuart Harvey’, to allow editorial staff to access Facebook.

But Francesca Johnson claimed the paper had breached Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) after a journalist began conversing with her using the profile in March this year.

In response to a post by the complainant that she was “done” and “drained” following her resignation from her positon at the Dartmouth Business Improvement District, he had engaged in conversation with her.

None of the exchange was reported by the newspaper but the complainant became curious as to who was making these comments because they did not match the tone of comments from her friends, and the account did not have a profile picture.

She then posted on her account: “Friends – this Stuart Harvey – me thinks is really [an identified journalist] from the Chronicle using a fake surname…”

An hour later she received an email from the journalist in question admitting that he had used the Facebook account with a false name for several years.

The complainant then blocked this account and the South Hams Newspapers page from her Facebook account. In June, she changed her security settings so that only her ‘friends’ could access her page.

The Chronicle said the comment was merely an observation and the journalist had not intended to elicit information for publication.

He had been surprised it had been attributed to ‘Stuart Harvey’, and not the ‘South Hams Newspapers’ page, to which he also had access, on the website.

There was no clandestine activity, subterfuge or attempt to mislead, and the journalist had immediately changed the name on the account and emailed the complainant to explain his position once the error was realised.

IPSO noted “with some concern” that the Chronicle had not considered the use of a Facebook pseudonym by a member of the press had the potential to engage Clause 10 when the profile was launched.

But while the journalist had misrepresented his identity, the Committee was satisfied that the conduct in this particular instance was not undertaken as part of an attempt by the newspaper to obtain or publish comments.

The complainant further claimed the Chronicle had breached Clause 3 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Harassment), Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined ‘Tourist information centre director admits poster prank’, published on 10 July 2015.

The article contained comments the complainant had made on her Facebook page in relation to the police interviewing her about an incident in Dartmouth.

She claimed a journalist had continued to “track” her personal Facebook account and reported her posts in print.

The Chronicle said, in this instance, the complainant’s Facebook page had not been accessed by a member of the newspaper’s staff and a local resident had emailed a screen shot of the page to the paper.

IPSO found no breach of the editor’s code on any of the complaints, and the full adjudication can be read here.


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  • October 26, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Erm, I am confused. It’s OK for a newspaper to set-up a fake Facebook account in a made-up name and then use it to contact newsworthy people? Of course they will never use the information gained (so why do it?). And readers helpfully sending in screenshots of other people’s Facebook pages, because it would be unethical to do it yourself? Happens all the time, my inbox used to be heaving with them (not).

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  • October 27, 2015 at 9:59 am

    Surely a screenshot of a Facebook page set to friends only would be a breach of privacy?

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  • October 28, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Worth asking how many newspapers still use bylines for non-existent reporters?

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