In the posting that follows I would like to take a look at media reporting of social problems that could in some way implicate or criticize social networking sites. It should be borne in mind that the paper press (also in its online form) has often been quick to attribute blame to social networking sites, and looking at some of the tabloid reporting we find bias and poor representation of the facts. There are however serious issues to be raised regarding the use and abuse of these sites and I hope that the stories that follow will provoke some critical thought and response.
One story appearing all over the press this week tells the story of 33 year old Peter Chapman, a registered sex offender who lured Ashley Hall (a teenage girl suffering from low self esteem) to a meeting using a false account on Facebook. He had posed as a 17 year old boy, posting a picture of a young boy as himself, befriending the girl before inviting her to meet him. Realizing that she might become suspicious when she saw a 33 year old balding man he texted her to say that his father was coming to meet her, than raped and killed her.
He has been sentenced to life imprisonment after admitting his crime. An article describing the events on Sky News states that this must be taken as a clear lesson of the dangers of meeting someone through social networking sites. The article also quotes Det Supt Andy Reddick who led the investigation and states “It’s clear from our investigation that sexual predators are using these sites to target their next victim”.
The BBC’s reporting of the event is more widely critical in its tone, and states that lessons must be learned from this tragedy. It cites policing errors but also addresses the problem that current legislation regarding the Sex Offenders Register does not presently require the registration of the IP and e-mail addresses of sex offenders.
The National Association of Probation Officers state however that it would be impossible to monitor all registered sex offenders at current funding levels, and what is needed is the technology that would allow the signaling of sex offenders as they are online.
Facebook is also criticized for not having an advice or help button that would offer users advice in a similar situation.
Obviously social networking sites are not the only media forms that could be considered dangerous. There have been plenty of cases in which people have admitted to emulating things seen in films or through other channels, but here we find a fundamental difference. The individual has direct participatory input in the media form. You are the actor in this virtual world. You can be yourself or you can pretend to be someone else but either way you can effect proceedings through your actions. All of which involves decision making, but decision making requires background information, and that information could be false.
Obviously this case has become topic for debate on several blog sites. One particularly critical posting appears on Twitown signed by Rob.
In his posting, Rob claims that Facebook want to claim ownership of all of the things that are posted on their site, personal details, user profiles and all, but that they are not prepared to take responsibility when everything goes wrong.
He goes on to argue that if sex offenders want to open accounts with false names and photos there is absolutely nothing to stop them doing so, and that the efforts made by social networking sites to police their operations are flawed and bound to fail.
He also argues that governments can to some extent be blamed. In South Korea for example a government ID is required for all social network users, whereas in Europe of the US an e-mail account that takes 30 seconds to procure without any documentation is adequate.
There have been other similar cases of people using fake personalities to manipulate third parties, although here we let Facebook off the hook a little and indict MySpace.
In an article posted in New Yorker in 2008, Lauren Collins describes how an argument between two teenage girls lead to suicide. With the assistance of a third party (an 18 year old family employee) Curt and Lori Drew in concert with their thirteen-year-old daughter a longtime friend of Megan Meier allegedly created “Josh”, a fictional MySpace user. The prosecution in the court case that followed the incident claimed that The Drews created Josh after their daughter and Megan had an argument so that they could get even on their daughter’s behalf. Josh befriended Megan and over a period of time they became good if virtual friends. At some point Josh changed his tone somewhat however and started to taunt Megan and provoked a multi-user slanging match, a process that ended in a message stating that ‘the world would be better without you’. Half an hour after reading the message Megan was found dead, hanged in her wardrobe using her belt.
As Rob points out in the blog I referred to earlier, the law has not stayed abreast of technological advances, and although defined by a judge as cruel, the Drews had not in fact broken any laws, and are free to continue their daily lives just down the road from the dead girl’s parents. For an explanation of the legal position see the legalblogwatch site. The article was posted before the trial came to court but the arguments proved to be correct. The Drews were in fact eventually charged with breeching the MySpace user contract. An in-depth report of court proceedings is available on Wired.com. Drew was initially found guilty but last year the verdict was overturned on appeal.
Other problematic pieces involving social network sites include an article in The UK Daily Mail from 2008 that claims that a man killed his wife and then himself after she announced to her friends on Facebook that she was about to leave him. The implication is not that the man learned of his fate through Facebook, but that the fact that she broadcast the event to the world may have pushed him into the act.
2 weeks ago several UK newspapers including the Daily Telegraph carried the story of Emma Jones, a 24 year old teacher who possibly committed suicide after her ex-boyfriend allegedly posted naked pictures of her on Facebook. The circumstances surrounding the death of Miss Jones are however still under discussion, and although the photos were definitely posted it has not been proven by whom and several papers raise doubts about the act of suicide. Miss Jones was however clearly distressed by the posting. The reporting of this case does however involve jumping to several as yet unsubstantiated conclusions and should be read with a critical eye.
These stories seem to touch upon the public nature of the beast. Somebody else hanging out your dirty underwear for all the world to see. With obvious and tragic repercussions.
And finally in this week’s Facebook bad-press-pack we have the tragic story of a man who killed his 9 month old son and then himself, and then posted his suicide note on Facebook. The problem here is that the posting took place 6 hours after his death, leading one to presume that someone else actually put the notes and photos on-line. If this is the case then we must also say that the murder and suicide could have been prevented, also bearing in mind that Stephen Garcia, the father in this tragic story, had previously posted other references to his forthcoming act.
Given the often public nature of suicide (jumping from a building for example) and its quality as a call for recognition, such an open public community could be seen as the perfect suicide communication medium, and could be analyzed as an indicator as such.
All of the stories reported above raise questions about ethics and above all responsibility. Social networking sites are being used in a myriad of different ways, including stalking, entrapment, revenge taking, cries for help, threats and bullying. But even just the sharing of personal information or photos is not unproblematic as some of the experiences reported above prove.
If the social networking sites themselves do not have the power to police who uses them and how, who should and can take responsibility? Can we really expect parents to keep tabs on everything their children do in the case of contact with sex offenders, when they probably don’t even have the technical or material capacities required? Should users be looking after other users, looking for behavior that they could report to others as suspicious in order to somehow protect them from something? This problem also involves issues of privacy and personal freedom, but in the hands of some privacy and freedom can be dangerous or problematic tools, although here lies another posting entirely.
(photo: chapter 8 – community building through social networking – by davidking from Flickr)