Facebook, privacy, a murder and a furfie

by Lee Hopkins on May 17, 2010 · 2 comments

in Uncategorized

privacy The police have been out in force on the airwaves today, proclaiming loud that social networking is something to be kept under the covers.

This is as a result of the tragic murder of a young woman in NSW at the hands of a stalker.

According to the ABC, Detective Superintendent Peter Crawford says

there is no reason a teenager or a child should have a photo on their Facebook profile page.

He says photos, school details, or a young person’s date of birth should never be posted on the social networking site.

Indeed, in an interview conducted on ABC Local Radio’s ‘Drive Show’, Detective Senior Sergeant Barry Blundell from South Australia’s own police force told host Sonya Feldhoff that there was no need to put any identity information up at all, but that youth should consider not even using their real name.

He also encouraged South Australia’s parents to ensure their youth never posted up information that was “not necessary” to post.

Barry (hopefully no relation to Graeme Blundell, The Australian’s excellent crime fiction critic) also strongly encouraged parents to ‘friend’ their kids.

No, really.

Let’s examine these ‘moral panic’ reactions one by one.

Firstly, when I last checked (just as I went to air to respond to Detective Senior Sergeant Blundell) there were 8,799,480 Aussies on Facebook. That one Facebooker amongst this many should have come to harm is a statistical outlier, methinks.

Two, the idea that stalking is just a online activity. Had I the inclination, which I most assuredly don’t, I could follow any school girl, shop assistant, mother of three, or office worker back to their home, wherein I could laughably attempt to cause some sort of damage. Singling out this ‘online stalking’ idea is so ludicrous when compared to the opportunities presented every day to would-be stalkers that it shows a paucity of thinking and a knee-jerk moral panic reaction.

It takes me back to the moral panics inflicted upon us when certain heavy metal rock bands had their records banned because they/the lyrics allegedly:

  • worshipped the devil,
  • caused their fans to worship the devil,
  • encouraged suicide and
  • did cause a suicide. The poor and understandably distressed parents, wanting to find something to lash out at, blamed a heavy metal rock band for their child’s suicide because he was listening to one of their records a lot before he took his life. The case was dismissed.

And let us not forget that, according to the good folk of the time, if one played ‘Revolution 9’ by the Beatles off  of their superb White Album backwards one could distinctly hear the band proclaiming that ‘Paul was dead’.

And shiver in a fog-bound London, if you would, at the end of the 1800s and you happened to be a prostitute who, on calling out, “Who’s there?” into the dark and misty night received the chilling reply, “Jack.”

Thirdly, let’s consider the idea of not using your real name or giving any identifying information in your profile. Firstly, Facebook’s terms and conditions of service prohibit the use of false names, so calling myself ‘Snoop Doggy Hoppo’, or ‘SDH’ is out, unless I actually am known as that to a significant percentage of the world.

Secondly, the principle component of the success of MySpace came from it allowing MySpacers to change the ‘look n feel’ of their pages whenever they liked. In this way teenagers could ‘try on’ different personalities, different clan affiliations and test out different identities in a safe environment (certainly safer than turning up at school as a Goth on day one, an Emo on day two, a cyberpunk on day three, a chipmunk on day four, etc). MySpace was fantastic for allowing teenagers the space to experiment, play and determine who they were by them finding out who they weren’t/didn’t feel comfortable being.

Facebook doesn’t allow such personalisation (a pity), but it does at least allow for anyone, not just teenagers, to try on different elements of identity for size and see what they feel comfortable with (e.g. rabid gamer, social butterfly, drift expert, and so on – don’t know what drifting is? Ask your teenage son).

In fact, there’s an idea – talk to your children, parents. Novel concept, I know, and one that is rendered even more difficult by many times you having to decode and unpack nothing more than a grunt. But worth sticking at it, I know from personal experience, if only to be invited to watch drifting sessions.

Back to the story at hand…

The idea of ‘only putting up information that was necessary’. Good grief – are our poor children only allowed to name, rank and serial number? Can they not express themselves, express happiness, sadness, joy, discomfort, show us what irks and what ails? After all, we adults do that all of the time, in all manner of off- and online ways; do we really expect our chillen’ to not want to mimic our freedom of expression?

Next up – the idea of ‘friending’ your offspring. How do you pronounce ‘i.n.v.a.s.i.o.n…o.f…p.r.i.v.a.c.y.?’ Your offspring are going through all the hard identity-formation work of sorting out who they are and where they stand in relation to their peers and the world in general. The last thing they need is mummy and daddy insisting that they can only connect with their peers online if mummy and daddy can see all that goes on.

I cannot stop shaking at the memories of Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother. Besides, even if mummy and daddy have their friendship requests accepted (would you accept your bosses’, or your parents’ requests?), they can only view wall posts and various activities. Still hidden from M&D’s view would be all of the private messages bouncing from inbox to inbox, which is what would happen in order to keep personal matters personal and private.

Conclusion

I feel sorry for the parents of Nona Belomesoff, but she did something that most teenagers have been warned time and time again NOT to do – meet up with strangers in strange places. Facebook has been cited as the mechanism by which she was lured to her death, but it could just as (more easily) been via a faked letterhead, a series of friendly telephone calls or any number of other social engineering activities.

Facebook’s (admittedly wonky) privacy policies are complex (as this complex infographic shows), but were not the defining reason why this young woman lost her life; her eagerness to meet some people from an animal welfare organisation was. One could just as easily blame animal welfare organisations for existing as blame Facebook.

Finally, encouraging parents to ‘lock down’ what they clearly don’t understand shows how poor the thinking of the police is in such knee-jerk moments. We are encouraging more and more transparency in the world – in our governments, in our institutions, in our politicians and our business leaders, in our religious organisations and in our neighbours’ private lives – but the police are asking us to somehow turn the direction of social progress 180 degrees so that our children (now safer than they’ve been in centuries) are encouraged to keep secrets, to keep skeletons locked away in dusty cupboards. Children who are encouraged to keep secrets keep them – do not then criticise them when they bring such secret behaviour to bear on our lives when they reach positions of import.

Blaming Facebook – and social networking in general – is a furfie: A misleading or erroneous story.


  • http://aqualung.typepad.com/aqualung/ aqualung

    This seems like an example of the saying “a convenient scapegoat is as good as a real solution” … blaming whatever is the currently favoured demon means you don't have to think about the real problems, which are not really that different to when I was the same age (some time ago now!) – teenagers are curious, rebellious, push the boundaries … the methods may change, but the motivations (and unfortunately the mistakes) are the same.

  • http://twitter.com/oliyoung Oli Young

    Bingo.

    Interchange Facebook for any other medium with which people can connect and the story doesn't lose any of it's tragedy. The problem isn't the medium, it's the participants.

    You're right, just because the photos aren't posted on Facebook, they'd be emailed, they'd be MMS'd; kids/adults will find a way around it, blaming Facebook is a cheap shot at a service they (the media) really don't understand so it's easier to blame it than understand it, and that's their failure, not Facebook's.

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