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Facebook embroiled in UK dispute over dead gunman

- Associated Press - Thursday, July 15, 2010

LONDON (AP) - Raoul Moat was an avowed cop-hater just out of jail when he shot his ex-girlfriend, killed her new lover and seriously wounded a policeman. After a week on the run, he took his own life when cornered by police.

But he still lives on in Facebook, where a memorial page for the 37-year-old former bouncer has attracted more than 38,000 fans, scores of enthusiastic tributes _ and plenty of outrage from politicians over the killer's adulation.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned the outpouring of sympathy and praised a lawmaker who wants the Facebook page removed _ but Facebook so far has said no.

Cameron's spokesman, Steve Field, said Thursday the government had spoken to Facebook about the page _ "R.I.P. Raoul Moat You Legend" _ but did not specifically ask the company to take it down. But Cameron said Conservative lawmaker Chris Heaton-Harris had a "very good point" when he demanded that Facebook remove the page.

"I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man," Cameron said in the House of Commons on Wednesday. "It is absolutely clear that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer _ full stop, end of story."

For many, however, that is not the end of the story. From 18th-century highwaymen to outlaws like Jesse James, criminals have long attracted romantic mythology and public support. The presence of Internet sites like Facebook allows those emotions be seen worldwide, and almost instantaneously.

Moat sparked one of Britain's biggest police manhunts and a media frenzy after his shooting attacks in northeast England. While on the run he "declared war" on police and vowed "I won't stop until I'm dead."

He was cornered late Friday on a riverbank in a hours-long standoff with police that was carried live on TV. He then apparently shot himself. Police acknowledged firing stun guns at Moat in the final minutes and the police watchdog is investigating his death.

Dozens of bouquets and cards have been left at the spot where Moat died, many by strangers.

Many more have written tributes on the Facebook page. The comments range from angry to obscene to apparently heartfelt. Fans have declared Moat is "one of the few remaining reasons Britain is still great," say that "love got the better of you" and praise him for being someone who "would rather die like a soldier than live like a coward."

Some accused the police of persecuting Moat. Others blame his ex-girlfriend, whom he shot and seriously wounded.

The page is not entirely pro-Moat _ some posters condemn both the killer and his Facebook fans.

Aric Sigman, a psychologist who has studied the biological effects of social networking, said the online outpouring reflected a new and alarming phenomenon _ "recreational, virtual grief."

He said sites like Facebook allow strangers to "hold hands virtually and amplify and consolidate their personal feelings, using this news item as a vehicle for their own emotional issues."

"It is being used to amplify and elevate views which in the real world we would all feel are not constructive or healthy," Sigman said.

Facebook defended the Moat tribute page, saying it did not violate the company's terms of use and could help provide a forum for debate.

"Facebook is a place where people can express their views and discuss things in an open way as they can and do in many other places, and as such we sometimes find people discussing topics others may find distasteful," the company said in a statement Thursday. "However that is not a reason in itself to stop a debate from happening."

But Heaton-Harris, the lawmaker who called for page to be removed, said some of the comments incited hatred.

"Some of them are inciteful, inciting people to go and do horrible things to the police and to women," he told the BBC on Thursday. "I think it's the job of politicians to say, 'Hold on a second, we have got some boundaries here.'

He thought that Facebook might eventually change its policy.

Facebook has "always reacted to public opinion and I just wanted Facebook to know there was a huge amount of public anger" over this, he said.

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Associated Press Writer David Stringer contributed to this report.

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