Liar, Coonan, Liar!

Well surprise surprise! The (former) government’s campaign to promote their dodgy NetAlert filter — it was cracked by a teenager, after all — over-stated the risk to kids on the Internet. And Senator Helen Coonan seems to have fibbed about what was in the government-commissioned report.

One advertisement said a survey had shown that more than half of 11-15-year-olds who chatted online were contacted by strangers…

[Coonan] refused to make the research public, saying it contained personal information. The Age has obtained the research, a survey prepared by the Wallis Consulting Group, under freedom of information laws. It does not contain any personal information…

[The claim] regarding stranger contact does not appear in the government-commissioned research. The question was not posed in this form. Participants were asked: “When chatting online, have you ever been contacted by someone you haven’t met in real life?” More than half answered “yes”.

So, a “stranger” is anyone you chatted with online, even a friend of a friend, who you just haven’t met physically. A “contact” could have been spam. Gee, we all have them, don’t we?

The duplicity of Coonan’s statement is the conflation of “someone you haven’t met before” with “stranger” with “danger”. The pre-existing alliterative “stranger danger” meme made it even easier to promulgate this campaign of fear.

If someone’s mind already includes “stranger danger”, and you use loose terminology to say that anyone you haven’t met in “real life” before (as if people become non-real when your communication is electronic?) is a “stranger”, then instead of the perfectly reasonable “half of the kids have met a new friend online” you suddenly have “half of the kids have been approached by a dangerous paedophile”. Hardly the same thing.

There was an interesting discussion on the Link mailing list this morning. Some people have criticisms of my argument. But the “stranger danger” meme is just wrong.

As one fact sheet on child sexual abuse says:

A study in three states found 96% of reported rape survivors under age 12 knew the attacker. 4% of the offenders were strangers, 20% were fathers, 16% were relatives and 50% were acquaintances or friends…

In up to 50% of reported cases, offenders are adolescents. In 82% of accusations recently studied the accused offender was a heterosexual partner of a close relative of the child’s.

So, the NetAlert campaign promoted a completely inaccurate stereotype of the “risky people”. The typical offender is an adolescent “known to the victim”. But if you’re over 45 and male, don’t dare pause on your afternoon walk to smile with joy at the sight of kids playing in the park, and especially dare not ask “How’s the soccer going?”

I find it truly disgusting that saying hello to a fellow human being, of whatever age, is immediately treated with suspicion. That kind of paranoia can’t be good for society. Is that really the world we want to live in?