Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Facebook & the Rise of Online Stalking

by Daisy Mendelsohn

“What did people do without Facebook?”

I hear this question a lot, as my friends from back home and from school discuss the fact that most of us found our roommates and some college friends on the social networking site. It is the place where you can keep up with those living in all parts of the world and stay updated on everybody’s lives.

Because of its popularity with high school and college students, it has become a common practice nowadays to begin a Facebook group for possible incoming students at different colleges. George Washington University, Boston University, Loyola Marymount University and USC are only a few of the “Class of 2014” college groups that, as seniors in high school, my friends and I joined in order to get to know our potential future classmates.

Never did it cross my mind that some of those people could be fake—posing as students in order to do the unthinkable.

After all the media coverage on recent cyberbullying - especially the devastating story of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi - it never occurred to me that some of these people I began "friending" on the “USC Class of 2014” Facebook group would end up violating my privacy as badly as Clementi’s roommate did with iChat.

Sure enough, I was soon a victim of online harassment. I met "Jared" on the Facebook page for USC and we really hit it off—there was no romanticism involved—we were just two really good friends who were excited to start their new lives at SC. I talked to him, confided in him and grew close to him from March until September - even though I found out he was going to Stanford instead to be closer to his girlfriend.

I always thought a little bit about the idea that he could be fake, since all we did was Facebook chat, Facebook message or text. But I threw away my doubts since he was on the USC network and Stanford network, which is only accessible if you have a valid school email.

I literally went to Jared to talk about anything and everything—he knew almost all there was to know about me. When we were supposed to meet up at the Stanford game, he never replied to my texts, leaving me a gut feeling that this all could be a hoax. Sure enough, it was, and I was left feeling vulnerable, scared, disappointed and paranoid.

As I was going through this traumatic situation, I remembered that a good friend of mine went through the same exact thing just a few months ago. All of her "close" friends she had met on the college groups, turned out fake as well—leaving her feeling the same anxiety as I am newly experiencing. There are people out there that know everything about me and my friend, and yet we have no idea who they are, where they are and what they are doing with all of the personal information we have given them.

I am disgusted and fearful of every stranger I pass, wondering if that is the person that spent so much time lying to me for so many months. I always have tried to see the good in people, but such a good trait has betrayed me and I am left feeling foolish and unintelligent because of my decisions to be friends with a stranger I never met; it haunts me that some unknown person in this world knows so much about me, could possibly have pictures of me and can use them in any way he likes.

If we could take a poll of how many incoming college students have had the same thing happen to them - as it did to me and my friend - I bet the results would be shocking. This is a problem we need to tackle immediately before these violations of privacy potentially turn into bigger problems—even those as tragic as Tyler Clementi's. This is not just a violation of privacy, this is harassment and people’s safety could easily be jeopardized from these fake Facebook profiles.

We need to take action and go to our universities, our high schools and our friends to teach them of this commonality of fake identities and how people are quite possible obtaining school emails without actually being students of the universities. It’s a frightening thing, but we can fight back; We must update our privacy settings to the strongest possible; we should delete any Facebook friend we have never talked to before; and, most importantly, we have to remember that the only way to know if someone is actually real is to meet them the old-fashioned way - face-to-face.

Keep yourself safe, and don’t let these fake Facebook profilers get such personal information so easily. I learned the hard way, and I don’t want anyone to experience the pain that I am currently going through. From all I have learned from this disturbing experience, the most important thing I ask of you to remember is that, no matter what, our personal safety is much more important than being the “popular” one with a large number of friends on Facebook.

*Daisy Mendelsohn is a pseudonym; the author did not want to use their real name for this piece.

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