February 2, 2009

Facebook Highlights Dangers of Social Networking

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In the past few years, social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace have brought together millions of people around the world. At Cornell, the Facebook phenomenon is widespread, with more than 52,000 active users in the Cornell network. Everyone from alumni to incoming students have found their places within Facebook’s groups and forums; even President David Skorton has a profile.
Tommy Bruce, vice president of University communications, appreciates the influence that new Internet technologies present. “It is very important for any institution, Cornell included, to participate in the Internet world,” Bruce said. “However, all Cornellians should behave without violating the rules.”
Recently, two individuals created a fake profile for Wendy Purcell ’26, the late wife of Robert Purcell ’32, the namesake of Robert Purcell Community Center on North Campus.
Using Purcell’s name, the creators began to join groups affiliated with Cornell, such as the group for students accepted to the Class of 2013. Using Purcell’s avatar, the creators began sending friend requests to a number of Cornell students.
Facebook creators and operators claim that the way Facebook is designed facilitates responsible use.
“Facebook is based on a real name culture. This helps create an environment where people are accountable for their actions and behavior,” Simon Axten, of the Privacy and Public Policy Department of Facebook, stated in an e-mail.
Even though Facebook tries to ensure the personal accountability of all its users, it is relatively easy for users to create fake profiles. All that is required to create a Facebook profile in a college or university network is a valid university e-mail address.
“I thought that the idea of Wendy Purcell on Facebook was very clever and funny. She’s a person whose name we all know, but we don’t really know much about,” Jesse Briggs ’12 said in reaction to Purcell’s profile.
However, as a member of Cornell’s Facebook community, Purcell’s profile was presented in a way that conflicted with many other students’. Her status message often contained sexually explicit phrases and her communications with prospective students were often concerned with sex and promiscuity.
No matter the intent of Purcell’s creators, their creation of a fake profile is in direct violation of Facebook’s Terms of Use, which states: “[No user can] register for more than one user account, register for a user account on behalf of an individual other than yourself, register for a user account on behalf of any group or entity, impersonate any person or entity, or falsely state or otherwise misrepresent yourself, your age or your affiliation with any person or entity.”
In addition to violating Facebook regulations, the creation of false profiles has also been shown to pose a danger to individuals. Lori Drew was indicted for her role in creating a fake MySpace profile that eventually led to a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, committing suicide. Meier was led to believe she was chatting with a 16-year-old boy, who in reality did not exist. After Drew sent Meier cruel messages through the fake 16-year-old boy’s profile, Meier hanged herself at her home, according to MSNBC.
Facebook does have measures in place to ensure privacy and to weed out fake profiles. And, because of the high traffic of Wendy Purcell’s profile, Facebook administrators deleted Purcell’s profile. However, not all problems can be prevented. And, as technology improves and expands, there will be new challenges to meet.
Despite incidents that occur after people violate the regulations of MySpace and Facebook, many still argue that the social networking community bodes positively for Cornell, through networking and organizing on Cornell’s campus.
“I’ve already met a lot of my future classmates and people in my major. Maybe Cornell could implement [programs through Facebook] in the future,” Kevin Kim ’13 said.
Jason Locke, director of undergraduate admissions, stated in an e-mail, “Facebook most likely contributes positively to Cornell’s image. I would also add that given the significant number of information sources available to students today, Facebook is just one of many sources that prospective students can and will use in forming their impressions of Cornell.”
Despite all the potential good Facebook can offer, Locke maintains that users should be wary while using social networking websites. “There is a need for colleges and universities to fully understand both the possibilities and the risks involved in social media,” Locke said.