Are your 'friends' who they appear to be?
Last Updated Jan. 9, 2008
As the fastest growing group on Facebook, Canadians have thoroughly embraced the ubiquitous social networking site. Millions of users are logging on to reconnect with old friends, tap into niche communities and forge new relationships. But like most things online, what you see is not always what you get.
Much like that friendly Nigerian who wants to share his inheritance with you (just as soon as you e-mail him your banking info), Facebook phoneys are ever-present, a little irritating and, depending on what you use Facebook for, can land you in trouble.
Several media organizations were left red in the face after publishing quotes from what appeared to be Benazir Bhutto's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Outlets like the Globe and Mail, Australia's ABC News and London's Telegraph ran statements attributed to Zardari that were pulled directly from his Facebook profile.
Unfortunately the virtual Zardari was a phoney, a pseudo-profile set up by a prankster who goes by the name of Tonay. According to an online bulletin board, Tonay (or someone claiming responsibility for the profile) set up the account because no one else had, and he or she was eager to see how far this misinformation could get.
Indeed, it didn't take long for Tonay's Zardari to receive dozens of interview requests from some of the most reputable organizations out there (including National Public Radio), letters of condolence and even a few kind words from a "Special Officer" to a head of state:
"Hello. You don't know me of course. But I'm a great supporter of your great mother, and I serve as Special Officer to the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. Hopefully our acquaintance may foster a good working relationship for the future."
The account — as well as another false profile under Zardari's name — was eventually removed as it violated Facebook policy. "Users must not … impersonate any person or entity, or falsely state or otherwise misrepresent yourself, your age or your affiliation with any person or entity, " states the Facebook user agreement. But the site can't keep up with the phoneys and as fast as they can take one down, dozens more appear.
A quick search turns up the following profile pretenders:
- More than 25 George W. Bushes (several of them based in Canada).
- Five Yoko Onos. (Better lock up your bands.)
- Deceased former U.S. president Richard Milhouse Nixon.
- Kyoto Dion (Stéphane Dion's famously named pup).
Social networker beware
It's not just the media suffering the ill-effects of these Facebook frauds. With everyone from college professors at major universities, to politicians and celebrities being impersonated and misrepresented on the networking site, chances are you too may have a phoney friend in the bunch.
Fakers not only derail the communication Facebook sets out to foster, they can erode a user's sense of privacy. In August 2007, an IT security firm called Sophos released the results of a study they conducted on Facebook. The firm set up a fake friend account under the ID Freddi Staur (an anagram for I.D. fraudster) in order to test the public's willingness to reveal personal information to strangers online.
The fake user Freddi Staur "friend-requested" 200 people, meaning he invited those users to allow Freddi access to their profiles. Eighty-seven accepted the request and 82 gave Freddi access to personal information including e-mail addresses, phone numbers, work info and dates of birth.
Of course, not all profile pranksters are out to defraud you and there are several humorous profiles designed specifically to satirize and celebrate public figures. But knowing the difference can be tricky and don't count on Facebook itself to make you feel better about the mistake.
"Facebook does not pre-screen or approve Facebook pages, and cannot guarantee that a Facebook page was actually created and is being operated by the individual entity that is the subject of a Facebook page," the organization says. "Nor is Facebook responsible for the content of any Facebook page, or any transactions entered into or other actions taken on or in connection with any Facebook page."
While Facebook is a great tool for navigating the Web 2.0 world, like everything else on the internet, the key is to take it all with a grain of salt.
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