Kiran Deep owns the Seaton Sluice Superstore near Whitley Bay, a tight-knit community where gossip travels fast. Deep has been in business for around seven months, splitting her time between building the business, working part-time as a nurse and looking after a young family. In mid-March, a Facebook post claimed that Deep had raised the price of bread to £2.99 and was profiteering from the coronavirus pandemic. But the accusation wasn’t true. It was written by a former customer with a grudge, rather than a concerned member of the public.
Regardless, within a few hours the post was shared more than 5,000 times. Then 10,000. Even after the original post was deleted, screenshots circulated through the many Covid-19 ‘name and shame’ groups created in recent weeks.
Deep became the target of boycott campaigns and customers visited her shop to challenge her personally. “Some have been rude, and we’ve had a little bit of harassment,” she says. Business was heavily affected, and as threats increased in severity, Deep was forced to contact the police. “I was heartbroken,” she says. “People have mindlessly shared [a post] and believed it as gospel. We’ve just started our career, so the reputation we built in our community fell through within minutes.”
During the UK’s lockdown, nosey neighbours have turned to social media to name and shame those who flaunt government guidelines or businesses alleged to have hiked prices. On Facebook, searching ‘Covid name and shame’ brings up more than 30 coronavirus-related groups with tens of thousands of members. But are they consumer champions, protecting the average person against predatory business practices, or digital vigilantes potentially doing more damage than good?
One of the biggest groups is ‘Covid-19 The Good The Bad And The Ugly – The peoples Group!’. Since March 19, it has gained more than 10,000 members. “We believe the popularity was due to it being such an accessible platform for people to voice their concerns, disdain and outrage,” says group creator Jay Ace. The group abides by self-imposed guidelines. Bullying is not tolerated and keyword alerts notify admins to instances of racism or homophobia. Personal addresses are also banned, but shamed shops are not treated with the same anonymity.
And, with a group that governs itself, some things slip through the net. Members have repeatedly asked others to not use racist language: “Most of those bulk buying bog rolls etc to re sell are overwhelmingly non British,” reads one post – and the sharing of 5G conspiracy theories is common. “Sometimes a post slips through that causes uproar,” Ace says. “Humans are not infallible.”
In these groups, unsubstantiated accusations or claims based on flimsy evidence are common. “We are not a group of vigilantes,” insists group admin Richard James. “We are members of the general public who don’t like being ripped off, no different to what Watchdog do.”
‘Name and Shame – Covid-19 Profiteers’ is another popular group with almost 6,000 members. Fenn Settle, the group’s co-creator, believes his group encourages people to “look out for one another,” he says, so that when “all of this is over, we remember those who have done good and who have done bad.” Settle claims that businesses which have appeared on his group have been handed fines by Trading Standards, and that other admins have received threats for their efforts. He’s also had issues with racist language being used by members. “We have had issues with a lot of people pointing to Asian shopkeepers,” says Settle. “If they’re identified as anything besides ‘shopkeeper’ we remove the comment, mute the culprit or block them.”
If a store is wrongfully shamed, though, Settle deletes the post. But has the damage already been done? “We police as much as we can but can’t get to every post,” says Settle. “With 6,000 members we unfortunately miss things.”
It’s little surprise these groups are thriving, as the onus on policing behaviour is being placed on the public. Of the UK’s 43 police forces, at least 26 of them have created dedicated online forms for reporting apparent breaches of government guidelines, and police forces have been inundated with calls. On April 7, Derbyshire Police chief constable Peter Goodman told the Home Affairs Select Committee that 11 per cent of all its calls are now Covid-19 related. In response, the public are being encouraged to reprimand neighbours themselves, with a statement on the official Ask the Police website advising that “in relation to one-off incidents, you initially speak to the people about your concerns.”
Settle has had no issues from Facebook in relation to his group, despite the platform announcing that it will begin to warn users who engage with misinformation. Other social platforms are more active in policing their platform, though.
On Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social networking service, the number of new groups increased fifteen-fold in the first week of March, even before the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. Public shaming is against Nextdoor’s community guidelines, and it has implemented a ‘Kindness Reminder’ which, if a member replies to a neighbour’s post with a potentially offensive comment, will prompt them to edit it before the comment goes live. This has been modified with language specific to Covid-19.
Any post that refers to the virus as anything other than ‘coronavirus’ or Covid-19’ – particularly in terms which “stigmatise or stereotype” a group of people – is subject to removal, and when a user posts about Covid-19, a pop-up window will encourage them to check that the post reflects guidance from health officials like the NHS or WHO.
It’s not just business owners who are at risk from the public’s misguided wrath. Cases of mistaken identity are affecting individuals. On April 9, Ben Quince from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, was charged with fraud after allegedly spending six nights in a hotel designated for NHS staff. As his face and name spread across social media, a different Ben Quince, from near Kings Lynn, Cambridgeshire, was napping. Groggily, he woke up to a message from a stranger. That message? “You piece of shit. I hope you rot in court.”
“I was spun out,” says Quince, remembering when he saw the message. “I started to think, was I being punked? Had I been hacked? Was I still dreaming?” Clearly, this stranger had made an error, and Quince replied to explain how, in fact, he hadn’t committed a crime 100 miles away from his home. The person responded with a simple “My bad.”
Quince can laugh about the experience, or at least understand that quarantine means people have too much time on their hands. “Maybe with people isolating and Facebook making it so easy to reach out, common sense [or] social barriers get forgotten,” he says.
Since being publicly shamed, Deep’s customers have returned and many have apologised. Still, she believes that naming and shaming sets a worrying precedent. “If anyone has had any problem with a shop this is a perfect opportunity to get your own back,” she says. “But just one click affects money in our till and the roof over our head.”
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