Website linked to teen suicides hires spin doctors to improve its image

A social media website linked to cyberbullying and teen suicides has hired spin doctors to repair its reputation following a series of public relations disasters.

Ask.fm, based in Latvia, has been linked to suicides in Ireland, Britain, and the US. However, the site is unlikely to make any fundamental changes to the way it operates, and an internet expert here has warned the best way to safeguard against any risks the site poses is for parental attitudes to change.

Ask.fm has 50m users and was set up to give young people a forum to ask questions and post comments anonymously. With no restrictions on what can be posted, many comments are of a sexual, aggressive, and bullying nature.

The website has been linked to the suicides of Irish girls Ciara Pugsley, 15, and Erin Gallagher, 13; British boys Anthony Stubbs, 16, and Joshua Unsworth, 15, as well as Jessica Laney, 16, and Gabriella Molina, 12, from the US.

Parents in all three countries, as well as in New Zealand and Australia, have called for the site to be banned and a Facebook campaign with that aim has supporters in 20 countries.

To date, the site’s founders, brothers Ilya and Mark Terebin, have been bullish in their reaction to the controversy.

Among their responses to media questions have been the claim that the deaths are the fault of children for being cruel, the fault of parents for drinking beer and watching TV when they should be watching their children, and that posts urging users to kill themselves were written by the victims themselves to get attention.

However, they seem to have decided it is best not to speak so freely and have hired PR experts to advise them on how to handle criticisms and pro-actively make their company’s case.

The brothers declined to answer detailed questions from the Irish Examiner but provided a statement: “We monitor the content on our site 24/7 and have processes and policies in place that are designed to help prevent the antisocial behaviours that are unfortunately present on all online social networks.

“We are committed to providing a fun, informative, and safe service for our users, so we urge users who witness or experience unpleasant behaviour to report it to us immediately by clicking the ‘report’ button.

“These reports are reviewed by our moderation team to ensure that genuine complaints are heard and swiftly acted upon.”

Internet expert TJ McIntyre, a UCD lecturer, said banning sites encouraged censorship and was futile because of the ease with which replacement sites could be established.

He said China and South Korea had attempted controls on controversial sites with little success.

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