It’s easy to be whomever you want in a Facebook profile. Answer a few questions, upload a photo, and a profile is created before your eyes. The girl next door can be an exotic model with the right profile picture. But a proposed bill in Arizona threatens to throw those behind certain fake profiles in the slammer.
House Bill 2004 would outlaw online impersonation without permission and with malicious intent, and any person who creates a profile in another person’s name to “harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten” could face jail time. But the definition of “malicious intent” can be difficult to pin down without violating First Amendment rights, said Qingwen Dong, a professor at the University of the Pacific – Stockton. What’s threatening to one individual may be harmless to another, he said.
“It’s easy to incorporate censorship as a quick fix,” Dong said. “It may change things, but it’s hard to use a prescription to change this.”
In our Internet-savvy and technology-driven generation, relationships are developed daily with the click of the “confirm” button, but your new friend could actually be someone else completely.
You might be more likely to converse with someone through Facebook chat than after an accidental bump in the school parking garage. This opens the door for online reinvention, made possible by what’s called the hyperpersonal theory, said Kristen Berkos, associate professor of communication at Bryant University.
“There’s a perception that you know a person because you have information about them, but you don’t have intimacy,” Berkos said. “In early childhood, we got to know people; we were invested. But now, there’s no investment, no give-and-take.”
Therefore, becoming friends with someone on Facebook doesn’t solidify a long-term friendship, but rather a superficial relationship built on picture “likes” and status updates.
A Facebook profile can be easily activated in a few steps and the user is confirmed via email, but there are no checks in place to verify if the profile is authentic. It’s easy to meet a person on Facebook and learn his or her life story because those details — interests, hometown, employment and educational history and so on — are often laid out on his or her profile.
Facebook is well aware of the issue of users having multiple Facebook accounts or posing as another individual. In the Facebook code of conduct, users agree to create no more than one personal account when accepting the terms of agreement. Violation of this agreement can result in account deactivation. While this is explicitly stated, users circle around this term daily, creating false accounts for humorous and malicious purposes.
“People like to go on vacation to become someone else,” Berkos said. “People enjoy different personas.”
Dong emphasizes the importance of educating users on the dangers of online communication.
“Every month, every day, every week, social media is adding another component and we have to add another piece to keep up with society,” Dong said. “We have to educate people, do a media campaign. When people understand the consequences, they will change.”
California Western School of Law professor Nancy Kim said corporations should take responsibility for their product and provide clear instructions to raise awareness of possible danger involving the product.
“AT&T put out a no-texting-and-driving campaign,” Kim said. “They didn’t have to do it, but they acted like a responsible company and raised awareness of how their product should be used.“
To really get to know a person, Berkos suggested putting the smartphone away sometimes and attempting to catch someone’s gaze for a few seconds to stimulate intimate, face-to-face communication — not behind a computer screen.
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