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Swedish police fear social media vigilantes

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Swedish police fear social media vigilantes
Children, unrelated to the article, cross a road in Sweden. File photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
14:38 CET+01:00
A Malmö neighbourhood page that descended into threats of killing 'local paedophiles' has Swedish police worried that hysteria on social media sites could spill into vigilante justice. Some comments already breach the law.

A young man who moved to join his father and new Swedish step-mother in Malmö took his bicycle, and on the way encountered a group of school children. Cycling after them, he tried to talk to the gaggle of pupils, but his behaviour led to suspicion among local residents. It also led to a posting on a neighbourhood page on Facebook where users lobbed accusations of paedophilia against the man.

"Maybe it's a culture clash, maybe you talk to each other on the road in his homeland," said local police officer Magnus Forneel,  "He's been in Sweden four weeks."

Fornell told The Local that he and his colleagues feared the mood on the Facebook page was near boiling point. He said he had spoken to a local gang of three who patrol the streets to warn against vigilante justice, "but they just keep at it".

The local police, in reaction to this case and the case of a mentally disabled man being incorrectly outed as a child molester on the page, invited parents to meet with them this week so they could straighten out the facts. The invite went out to 6,000 families, but only 18 parents showed up. Fornell said those parents had questions about the allegations but left the meeting calm and reassured that the police were keeping an eye on the situation and that the men mentioned in the posts were not accused of nor suspected of child abuse.

The online forum, however, had reached the point where some users were actively encouraging each other to kidnap the men and to kill them.

"When people start acting this way, telling people to beat people to death and bury their bodies... I feel that it's very frightening... I truly think there are people who are serious about this, so I'm scared a citizens militia will see some dark man waiting for the bus and they go 'Paedophile!' just because he's black," Fornell said. 

While he said that emotions running high on different fora was not new, he said that the tone of debate reaching the point of vitriol was less common.

"It's been a while since we saw this, but it pops up from time to time," Fornell said, adding that people did not understand they may be breaching the law by hurtling out such statements. 

"(They don't understand) at the moment. They say 'I just wrote it without meaning it' or 'it was in the heat of the moment'," he said.

Conspiracy to commit assault, harassment, and defamation are but some of the crimes the users run the risk of committing, but Fornell said that the police had as yet not opened any preliminary investigations into the comments. 

"Defamation is particularly difficult because the person who has been pointed out would have to first be aware of it and then report it to us," Fornell explained. "It requires a lot to get it to the report stage."

The police officer, who is a 35-year veteran of the force, said he had every sympathy for parents who wanted to protect their children, but said he feared mob justice if they didn't tackle the tone of the discussions. 

"People interpret it the way they want. Some people could use the information for whatever they want, depending on what motives they have," he said. "I'm scared of a citizens militia that heads to the streets to find these people." 

But even among those with no militant tendencies, Fornell said they had to understand the dangers of whipping up hysteria. The second case of a person accused of paedophilia on the site in recent months involved a man who lives in supervised housing for people with learning disabilities. 

"He functions at the level of a four-year-old. He likes talking to people and starts speaking with them, and people misunderstand him," Fornell explained. "Now he is not allowed to go for walks without a carer, but he doesn't understand the consequences of his actions."

Fornell underscored that there were no suspicions that he or anyone else identified on the site had shown tendencies toward paedophilia, which they told parents and school staff in order to try to calm things down. The post on Facebook that said it was time to kidnap the mentally disabled man, take him to a nearby forest to beat him up has now been removed. 

"I don't think they understand what they are doing . the problem is that it spirals up, they egg each other on, I'm scared it will reach such proportions that in the end it derails ... we've felt that it was on its way that's why we went out with facts," Fornell said. 

"But some people don't want to listen to us."

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