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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

How the “Project X”-riot in Haren, The Netherlands, could cost Facebook dearly.

Sometimes you can see an accident happen well before it actually happens. Still, the consequences of such an accident could be mindboggling.

This happened in a small Dutch suburb called Haren, in the province of Groningen. Last Friday, September 21,  this wealthy ‘estate town’ was hit by a hurricane of violence, due to a Project X-party, ‘fueled by Facebook (FB)’,  gone awry.

The riot involved hundreds of extremely aggressive youngsters, who were fighting with inhabitants of Haren, demolishing cars, looting and ruining shops and were wiping everything of the map that was not made out of concrete or massive steel. Often they did so, while smiling at every camera that was present at the party: “We’re having a ball! Yeah, cool!”.

Dozens of normal police agents and special riot control units (aka ME or Mobile Unit in The Netherlands) had to battle for hours and hours to regain control over the crowd-gone-berzerk. In the end, two people were severely injured; one of them was an old man of 83, who had been beaten with a brick on his head. A few policemen were injured too and four youngsters were arrested. There was a total damage of more than a million euro and many inhabitants of Haren were traumatized by what happened that evening. The violence that had been exposed, could only be compared with football hooliganism of the worst kind.

While football violence can often be predicted, due to the presence of two hostile supporter groups, this Project X-party started very innocent and naive.

Merthe, a typical Dutch girl-next-door, decided to organize a ‘sweet sixteen’ party and invited her real friends via Facebook. What she did forget, however, was to tag her party as ‘private’.

Due to the fact that Facebook – in case of a public (i.e. non-private) party –  allows invited people to invite people themselves, the number of people, planning to go that doomed birthday party, grew by the hour. When some popular radio stations in The Netherlands heard the word on the street about the party and started to broadcast the details, the party gained momentum and a domino effect came into action.

Poor Merthe, who discovered her mistake after the publicity machine started working, informed the police and the municipality about her invitation and the unintended consequences of it. Her family, as well as the mayor of Haren tried to convince the general public that the original birthday party was cancelled and the city didn’t allow a Project X-party to be organized in Haren.

Alas, Merthe had through Facebook opened the Box of Pandora and party-people all over the country and the public and social media gave the Project X-party so much airtime, that litterally thousands of people were meeting in Haren on Friday, 21 September.
What started as a kind of joke, turned very quickly into a violent war between the youngsters and the police.

Of course the authorities in Haren, the inhabitants and the insurance companies are trying to find the persons liable for the caused damage among the party people. This job will probably not be too hard, as ample footage and pictures of the events are available and some youngsters were even so stupid to put pictures and texts concerning their actions on the social networks Twitter and Facebook.

Already after a few days, fifty people had (involuntarily) turned themselves in at the police, after the police had fired a warning shot in the national media.

What might be most surprising for unaware people, but should not be for people that have read before on the topic of hooliganism, was the ‘breed’ of the hooligans at the party.

That breed was no such thing as:
  • Common criminals and notorious fighters with a police record of three feet long;
  • Unemployed, low educated and/or mentally challenged people;
  • People from low-class, ‘white trash’ families;
  • People from immigrant-minorities in The Netherlands.

To the contrary: most hooligans were youngsters from (upper-)middleclass and high-class families, that had good jobs or (successful) studies and had no police-record at all. In other words, the UNusual suspects.

Already in the eighties and nineties, the heyday of football hooliganism in Great Britain, Germany and The Netherlands, researchers had noticed that most footbal hooligans had succesful dayjobs and a very good income and just went to a football game to rumble and fight and have a ball, while using extreme violence against their adversaries in the process.

People could argue whether this kind of violence is a result of social acrimony, due to the economic crisis that we are going through, or the result of the virtually risk-free, overly controlled, ‘no frills’ society that we are living in. Some people go basejumping, others go hooliganing.

However, where is wide consensus about in The Netherlands and the countries of the European Union is the controversial role of Facebook in this Project X-party:
  • The fact that it is so easy to make a mistake like Merthe did: the tag, indicating a private party, is always switched ‘off’ and must me switched on manually;
  • The fact that such a mistake cannot be undone anymore: the Box of Pandora is opened and cannot be closed;
  • The fact that already earlier this year Project X-parties, fueled by Facebook, took place in Germany, Australia and the US, causing (smaller) riots and lots of damage too;
  • The very doubtful privacy policy of Facebook is also not speaking in its favor; 
Therefore I would not be surprised when the European Union within a few months comes with new regulations, forcing Facebook ‘at gunpoint’ to change its privacy policy and other controversial settings, like the ‘private party-tag’.

If not, vast penalties could be expected for this company that is already operating like a punch-drunk boxer lately. What might be a bad omen for Facebook, is the fact that the Dutch Euro-commisioner for telecom and internet business is Neelie Kroes, the former Euro-commissioner for Competition. Sometimes Bill Gates, the former Microsoft CEO, wakes up in the middle of the night in a pool of sweat, having dreamt of Neelie Kroes.  

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