Monday, August 16, 2010

Faceless Facebook

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I am aware that the column I wrote last week (Pay peanuts, get monkeys) is being forwarded like crazy and is clogging the inboxes particularly among those in government-owned and -controlled corporations. Quite a number has sent me thank-you letters. Thank you, too; I appreciate the positive feedback but I really didn’t write that column in support of any agenda other than basic fairness.

I got several invites to be interviewed on television or appear in this or that talk show, but I feel that what I have to say has already been said in that piece so I am holding off on making additional comments in the meantime. Let’s see what will happen in the next few days. Will the proposed hearings at the Senate materialize or have our legislators finally come to their senses?

In the meantime, there are other things worth discussing as well. I also recently wrote about how Facebook has been such a great help in terms of rekindling dormant social relationships. I continue to be amazed every day at how Facebook has enabled me to get reconnected with long-lost friends and relatives.

I know, however, that like anything else, Facebook can be used for dangerous means. The son of a good friend of mine was recently a victim of someone else’s malicious prank involving Facebook. I am lending this space to my friend, Romeo dela Rosa, who has written about what happened. What follows is his account.

The way it goes, the Internet as a medium for personal publishing has become as dangerous and risky as cruising the roads of Metro Manila during the rush hours.

There is no doubt that the Internet provides convenient fora for expression of ideas and promotion of advocacy or even just to do benign social statements. As far as the former is concerned, it is the best thing that has happened to freedom of speech and the press since the advent of the newspaper.

Too much accessibility however, breeds licentiousness and the cloak of invisibility and anonymity that one can hide in has emboldened some to use the Internet for mischievous ends. The fact is you can post debauchery in the Internet and get away with it with impunity.

It is amazing that children too have found their space in the Internet through Facebook accounts that they can create so handily. Parents are generally unfettered that their children are hooked into the computer for most of their waking time. After all, there are researches to be done and reports to be written as required by the school, and everyone agrees that this is now the age of free information. Besides, young people are computer smart and that their low tech dads and soccer moms are not up to their skill level to be able to monitor their Internet activities.

But this good fortune would be wasted on the young if they cannot handle it properly. Creating a Facebook account is not without travails. My 14-year-old boy recently fell victim to a prankster, apparently a misguided classmate, who secretly set up a fictitious Facebook in my son’s name complete with photos and a few details.

I do not know how the young rascal who pulled this off learned mischief so early unless he had picked up the crooked ways of older people around him.

I gathered that the fictitious Facebook attributed to my son had a split life. Early on, it coasted along as an ordinary Facebook that did not attract much attention until the time the manipulator behind the scene reared its ugly head and executed his real mission. I do not know also how he chose his victim but it might as well be spontaneously or for a motive only he would know. One night, he sat behind a computer, opened the Facebook account he created in the name of my son and made his move. You can just imagine how his eyes shone with glee as he posted sexually perverted comments on the Facebook of one of their girl classmates. His obvious intent was to attribute the comments to my son and get him into serious trouble in school.

The victim is a simple, pretty young girl from a reputable family; the innocent and silent type. Nothing about her would invite such a scurrilous attack. But a sick mind does not need any provocation. There’s no doubt that she felt gravely violated when she opened her Facebook and found herself at the receiving end of comments such as: Are you still a virgin? Would you like to have sex with me? (Punctuated by several F words)

The following day, my son had become the most hated boy in the campus. Some tried to seek him out, surely not for friendly purposes and many sent threats of bodily harm.

The mother of the girl, as expected, filed a complaint and my son was subjected to a humiliating investigation by school officials. It was not difficult, however, to establish his innocence. His classmates who know him attested that he had no Facebook account and that his interest in computer is limited to Naruto and other online games that do not involve gambling.

Not only did his classmates virtually absolved my son but also pointed to one of their classmates as a common suspect - a young boy who looks like he could not hurt a fly. Nonetheless, my son remained vulnerable to those who do not belong to his class. When he got home, he was scared and unnerved and did not want to go back to school anymore. In this situation, family support counted a lot and he mustered enough courage not to quit. But this is easier said than done. His older brother and sister almost got into trouble themselves for trying to protect their brother and ferret out the perpetrator of this misdemeanor.

Unfortunately, if it was easier to prove that my son was innocent, it was almost impossible to pin down the person who did it. Our own investigation established that my son did not go anywhere near a computer that night when the comments were posted. In fact, the family laptop was not opened that evening. On the other hand, the process of locating and identifying the person responsible for it and thus proved our suspicion is so complicated and would involve substantial costs.

Through it all, I learned that there are so many fake Facebook accounts and that celebrities are the usual targets because their identity is easy to replicate owing to their public exposure. The ingenuity and adeptness with which the impostors assume the character of the person they are cloning is so amazing that you would not notice what’s wrong unless you happen to be the real person himself. This is piracy to the extreme!

In the beginning, having somebody run a Facebook for you may appear to be amusing, a fantasy trip of an admirer or a fan. Some say it is better to ignore it since the individuals who do this thrive on attention. Either way, there comes a point when the alter ego starts craving for controversies, assumes ownership of the personality he is representing, develops a mind of his own and creates a lot of troubles and conflicts.

I am sharing this story because I believe that everyone should be vigilant about protecting this medium of information and communication and not squander our good luck that some good things still come free, before abuses invite regulatory attention or legislated restrictions and eventually, curtail the freedom we now enjoy.


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