24 June 2013

The unsocial side of social networks

By Dr Probir Kumar Banerjee

Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and others have increased interaction in leaps and bounds. The ability to connect and interact with friends, family, and sometimes random strangers and from anywhere in the world is something that was inconceivable only a few years ago. Reconnecting with long lost friends from school, previous workplace or neighbours through these social sites is sheer pleasure. You have a lot to talk about, stories to tell, and incidents to reminisce over which makes you feel good. These softwares have also enabled individual voices to be expressed and heard rapidly. For example, Twitter has been much more useful than traditional media because of the rapidity with which news spreads, and also because tweets are up-to-date, less sensational and more detailed than traditional media-based sources. In the fires of South California in October 2007, social media, especially Twitter, helped to gather up-to-the-minute information from far-flung rural areas that traditional media and emergency services were not able to reach. In 2009, Twitter helped in organising a mass public street protest in Iran to oppose the official results of the presidential election. When the Iranian government restricted journalists’ access to these events, protesters used Twitter to direct the attention of the public and journalists to videos, photographs and written material related to the protests. Such whistleblowing helps in enlisting world opinion and ushering in transparency in politics and governance mechanisms that benefits citizens.

However, whether social networking sites are creating a wholly positive influence on individuals and society is questionable. A newspaper recently reported that a young married woman and some of her family members had accepted a Facebook friend request from a man who they thought they knew. This gave him access to her online photographs, which he altered to depict her naked, and emailed them to her family members. He threatened to tell her husband unless she paid him sums of money. Though the man was later charged in court, the young woman and her family went through a period of intense agony. In another case, a girl of 14 in Italy killed herself because she was bullied on Facebook. Her ex-boyfriend allegedly insulted her on Facebook after she left him days earlier, and a gang of his friends circulated her video-clip on Facebook in which she appeared drunk and dishevelled in a bathroom at a party. Before taking her own life, she wrote on Facebook: “Forgive me if I am not strong. I cannot take it any longer.” The Italian parent’s association filed a criminal complaint in Rome against Facebook for its alleged role in the suicide. Italian law forbids minors under 18 from signing contracts but Facebook effectively enters into contracts with minors in a bid to avoid legal complication. The question is, even if Facebook and those responsible for humiliating the girl are punished, can the emotional damage and grief of the parents be remedied? Just do a Google search with the words “Facebook blackmails” and you will find a staggering list of blackmailing attempts. Even governments may be accessing your data on Facebook. The recent news claiming some sites like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! provided the US government’s National Security Agency access to its data servers for the NSA’s PRISM program is a case in point. However, Facebook claims it has now added a new post-NSA-PRISM privacy setting. Amusing, isn’t it?

You might be saying, “If one is careful, these problems are easily avoided”. But are we always so careful? In Facebook for example, most of us list our full name and birthday, reveal who our family members are, share our work history, our hobbies and interests, and even what we like and dislike. We do so voluntarily, without any kind of prodding or pushing. We all like to talk about ourselves or the things which interest us, which is the fundamental theme on which these social networking sites work. And this is where the problem starts. Once information is posted to a social networking site, it is no longer private. The more information you post, the more vulnerable you may become to predators, hackers, business competitors who are all trolling social networking sites, looking for information or people to exploit or censor. These human hackers, sometimes referred to as “social engineers”, design their actions to appear harmless and legitimate. They know humans are a weak link in cyber security and they exploit it to trick people into getting past security walls and privacy settings.

Legal remedies are sometimes difficult due to the ubiquity of the Internet on which these social sites are built. But even when legal remedy becomes available, does it adequately compensate for the emotional damage suffered? Unfortunately, gullible teens and young adults who are the most prolific users of these sites generally tend to overlook the extreme unpleasantness that can come from undisciplined usage. It is reported that 13 million Facebook users have not touched their privacy settings! These sites are great but they are really for people who have the discipline to use them.

Dr Probir Kumar Banerjee is Associate Professor with the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at pkbanerjee@swinburne.edu.my