When it comes to Facebook, what goes up may not come down, at least not without a fight. In many cases, the social networking giant has been slow to act when it comes to offensive content and fake profiles.
Robin Sinkhorn, mother of actress Lauren Potter, who plays Becky in the popular TV series “Glee,” learned this last year. Potter has Down’s Syndrome. When an onslaught of offensive messages suddenly appeared on her authorized fan page, it took her mother hours — then days — to delete them and block the offenders.
“When it was time to protect my daughter, it wasn’t easy to do,” Sinkhorn recalls. “I ended up having to delete everything — even the pictures we wanted. [Facebook] needs to be more user-friendly for parents.”
The incident had a happy ending when fans from around the world posted updates supporting Potter. The mother and daughter still use Facebook, in part to spread the word about a campaign to raise awareness that using “the R-word” (retard) in any situation — online or off — is not okay.
‘An Absolute Nightmare’
Cathy Williams is still waiting for her happy ending. In early January, she discovered a fake Facebook profile of her 13-year-old daughter Cassidy, a good student and star athlete. Williams has struggled for three months to get the page removed.
“This has been an absolute nightmare,” says the Peachtree City, Georgia, mother. “Facebook is just this giant entity that you cannot touch — you cannot talk to. Between me and my sister it had to be reported 300 times and you never get anything,” Williams said. “What does it take to get their attention?”
Privacy settings also played a role; the fake profile’s tight privacy settings made it hard for Williams to see what was going on, while a classmate’s wide-open settings allowed the imposter to snag Cassidy’s photo.
A Facebook spokesman points out that Facebook, which is based on a “real identity culture,” is self-policing.
“We provide ‘report’ links on nearly every page and encourage people to let us know when they see something they think might violate our standards,” said Facebook’s Simon Axten. “Our team of investigators reviews and takes action on reported content according to our policies.”
Axten adds that Facebook takes its community standards and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities very seriously, and reacts quickly. But Williams says efforts to report the page resulted in one dead-end after another. She even recalls a message from Facebook saying it no longer accepts a form the site directed her to.
The fake profile briefly disappeared from time to time only to reappear, sometimes under the names of other middle-schoolers. The impostor’s friends included teens Williams says were expelled for alleged gang activity. The angry mother pored through the school directory calling students and parents, and Cassidy texted her real friends, to no avail. Neither local police nor the Georgia Bureau of Investigation could do anything. The authorities told Cassidy’s mother they could only act if the site hindered the victim’s professional reputation or ability to earn income. “The laws aren’t in place to protect middle school kids,” she says.
In response to emailed questions, Axten provided a direct link to a form he says can be used to request information associated with an account without having to provide a subpoena or court order.
“We did all the reading of the fine print and Frequently Asked Questions with a fine tooth comb,” Williams said, but had never encountered that form.
As of now, the page appears to be gone, but Williams doesn’t know whether Facebook finally removed it or whether it’s gone temporarily dormant as it has many times before.
Removing Fake Profiles
California attorney Rachel Stilwell has found it relatively simple to remove fake profiles of her celebrity clients. Last year an imposter urged people to donate to a “charity” her client — a regular on General Hospital — had never heard of. In that case, using the “report” link saved time and expense. Facebook deleted the fake page within two days.
“This was the first phase and it happened to work. Had they not complied promptly, absolutely I would have sent a cease-and-desist order,” said Stilwell, with law firm Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane in Marina Del Rey.
But since then, Facebook changed its reporting process. A few days ago she asked Facebook to remove a fake profile of another client, a former “American Idol” finalist. The dialog box was only large enough to enter her client’s name, but not her relationship to him. To be safe, she also filed Facebook’s Notice of Intellectual Property Infringement; Facebook deleted the fake site within hours and sent her a confirmation email.
“One of the unique things about Facebook is that it changes constantly,” Stilwell said. “I saw Jimmy Fallon perform a stand-up comedy bit about Mark Zuckerberg having bought a modest five-bedroom house recently. The only problem, Fallon states, is that ‘once you get used to it, he rearranges the furniture for no reason.’”
Facebook Page Supporting Cop-Killer
Jeff Whitmire took a roundabout yet effective route to getting a Facebook page (rather than a profile removed). Last month, two Athens-Clarke County Georgia police officers were shot in the line of duty, one fatally. Unable to attend the funeral, Whitmire created a page for community members to offer their condolences.
Then he realized someone anonymously created a page supporting alleged cop-killer Jamie Hood. Almost 2,000 people “liked” the pro-Hood page. Liked, of course, is a relative term — people who despised Hood also connected with the page. Whitmire was horrified not just by its existence, but by extreme language and threats of violence. “It became an online race war,” he said. (The suspect and wounded Officer Tony Howard are black; officer Elmer “Buddy” Christian, who was killed, was white.)
Whitmire then created a new page: Shutdown the Jamie Hood Fansite. “This is not a page to bash or speak about what should be or will be done to Jamie Hood,” Whitmire posted. Instead, it urged its 13,000 followers to report the pro-Hood page to Facebook. To keep things under control, he closed the page to comments.
Whitmire estimates that if only half the page’s followers complained, Facebook would have received 6,500 reports. Still, he believes it was actually the page’s creator — a middle school student — who took it down.
“On the day it was deleted the creator posted, ‘I just saw the story about this page on the news, I will be deleting it tomorrow. Ya’ll know where I stand and I salute Jamie Hood.’ The page was deleted not even two hours later,” Whitmire says.
He credits the news media with the victory. “I feel that had it not been for the segment on FOX5 that the amount of pressure would have not been as ‘real’ to the actual creator.” (Full disclosure: I am a former FOX5 news producer.)
While the initial pro-Hood page caused the most controversy, several more pages= that both support and vilify the suspect remain online. One, which bears the same name as the deleted site, was started by a different person.
Unlike the difficulties Williams had with the fake profile, Whitmire says reporting the page was easy. Still, he says, that’s not necessarily good. “That may be too simple to the extent that it doesn’t require an in-depth complaint so that Facebook … can see the severity of a reported page.”
Finding a Balance
Via email, Axten says Facebook’s policies try to strike “a very delicate balance between giving people the freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints — even those that are controversial to some — and maintaining a safe and trusted environment.” When asked whether Facebook or the page’s creator removed the site, Axten said Facebook generally doesn’t comment on actions taken against specific accounts or pieces of content.
One frequent question about fake profiles and subjectively offensive pages is, “Who would do something like this?” It’s often hard to say.
“Page administrators have the option of listing their names on the Page, but this is not required,” Axten says. “People who like or comment on a Page must do so using their real identity. When we find or receive reports of people using fake names or false identities, we take action to disable their accounts. We also disable Pages when we find that the administrator is using a fake name or false identity.”
The next obvious question is — what should teens and parents do to protect themselves?
Williams worked as hard as she could to make other parents aware. “I don’t want to lay down in bed at night knowing I haven’t told another parent that their child is friends with a site that we have absolutely no idea who’s on the other end,” she says.
“The main thing, especially for kids, is to keep open communication with their parents,” adds Robin Sinkhorn.
“Always speak up for yourself,” actress Lauren Potter concludes, adding “Think what you type. Be careful. And don’t pick on anyone else.”
Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.