The vigilante's guide to social networking

Summary:Within 30 hours, a Facebook page with viral marketing symptoms targeted a user to become one of the most hated people on the 300 million user site,

Facebook has changed in the last few weeks where many users will notice the strength and popularity of the groups feature, and the incentive to "Become a Fan" to reveal a hidden message, something hilarious or something far more sinister.

Last week, a friend of mine from university, now on sabbatical in the United States, joined a group - the group was named along the lines of "The worst status update ever: this guy needs beating up!". I was intrigued. Surely it couldn't have been that bad? Even if it were, who was I to judge? Why had so many of my friends joined this group, according to my news feed? I checked it out hoping (truly) it would be something humorous.

But with one click of a button and in my gross naivety, I had become part of a group which, with over half a million other members and growing by thousands every minute, was dubbing this man as the most hated man on Facebook.

The profile picture of the group gave away more detail, with an arrow pointing to the right - the other tabs on the page - stating that "This is sick". I took note of the text on the page, created by another user but without saying who it may be, which was inciting people to share group invitations and further the growth of the group, and how "sick and evil" this supposed status was.

I will admit that curiosity got the better of me. We all have a sense, on some level, of sick intrigue, such as slowing down on the highway or motorway to see the result of a crash or simply by watching a terrifying film. These are not polar opposites but the same psychological urge we have to subdue the craving for shock and gore.

If the worst comes to the worst, I can always remove myself from the fan page and remove the update from my news feed - eradicating any visible trace that I was even on the group. But what you cannot do is unthink the thinkable.

As you would expect as this story is going, I became a fan of the page just so I was able to view the missing piece of the entire puzzle. When the page refreshed, a link appeared to an external Blogspot/Blogger page which only had one post, and within that post was a single image which allowed me to enlarge it. From here I saw the full "sick and evil" status message (which granted, was pretty bad), but the name of the person who set the status along with a clear profile picture of the person in question, along with a dozen or so highly abusive comments left below the status.

All the comments were verbally abusive but some are inciting violence and a couple are making their wishes known that they will commit premeditated violence against this person.

Again, I am reluctant you point you to any specific articles, pages, news prints or anything which may identify any particular person as to minimise risk of perpetuating any abuse or discrimination.

What is interesting are the connections you can pull from a single image. The above image which asks you to become a fan of the Facebook page is uploaded to a private web server which, stored in a separate directory, distancing itself from the main website.

Running a detailed WHOIS search on this particular domain name lifts out the full name of the domain registrant along with the home address and email address of the user. If a 2:1 average student can discover someone's identity online in a matter of minutes, it shows that it isn't that easy to hide behind the shroud of Internet anonymity.

Diving into the directory of this web server discloses a number of other images which, in turn, are part of other Facebook groups, some just as horrific as the one in question. One of the images relating to the group entices the Facebook user to watch a video of a baby appearing to be killed in a "freak accident". The person behind this web server has a number of these 'projects' running and with the hits to these images on his server, God only knows what 'wonders' (it's difficult to write in a sarcastic tone) it is doing for his site's Google PageRank or analytic statistics.

Yet perhaps this is the motive behind the entire project? One can only guess.

People power is not to be underestimated. There is very little stopping anybody printing out abusive posters and slapping them on telegraph poles or lamp posts in an effort to defame somebody. But by sharing something in an instant through conscious choice or automatic status updates of your activity and group joining, it doesn't take long for a message to spread very quickly.

The growth of this fan page doesn't surprise me in the least - coming from the generation which creates viral videos and uploads them to YouTube, or meme's which spread the world by storm in mere hours or days. But the fact that Facebook has either become too big or focused on a particular area to prevent these groups from arising, let alone to remove them when they incite hatred, abuse and violence.

My major consideration for this whole thing is "why". Why would somebody do this to another person? What are their reasons for doing so? Was this status either a clever PhotoShop'd image or was it a fraping incident? Either way, why create a group over a year after the rogue status message was applied?

It is important to note, when the status was originally written, this hit headlines around the web at the time. Again, I am reluctant to link to these stories in effort to reduce the perpetuation of this online attack. Those who may know about his story, you are probably right in your guess.

I see this is as one of two things. This could have been a personal attack on somebody for reasons we may not know, nor may relate to the content of the particular group. It could also be used (though, not in this particular case) as a ploy to set up an external site with advertisements to generate revenue. The shock sticks, the intrigue is raised and in a viral way could generate hundreds of dollars if not more in a very short space of time.

What truly astounds me is how easy it is to cause all of this with no obvious repercussions on the part of the perpetrator. Defamation and libel law reforms was in the news last week, but unless a case presents itself with the opportunity of setting case law precedent, the laws as we see today will not change and further issues will arise from sheer malice and the ability to cause immense harm "anonymously".

The group has since disappeared which, as a result allows me to post this article without any major further repercussions on group members or the specific subject of this group. Vigilantism is violence without a defence; only in a legitimate court of law can somebody be deemed guilty of a crime or offence. A Facebook group, had you not noticed, is not a court of law.

There are a few things to learn from this.

  1. Fraping is bad. Not only could it land your fellow victim in incredibly hot water, think of the very worst that could come as a result of the seeds you sow. If you leave a status like this on someone's profile as a "joke", there are some people who would really not see the funny side. Once it is on the web, it can never be taken down. A print-screen only takes a second and it's stored locally ready to be pasted elsewhere.
  2. Online "anonymity" doesn't exist. If you incite hatred, violence or other illegal acts online, it can and will no doubt, depending on the consequences that your actions take, be traced back to you. This idea of living anonymously in the cloud is nonsense. The police can and do out-smart even the smartest of people get caught. Even idiotic bankers know what goes on, and they plunged the world into an economic fire storm.
  3. Take responsibility for your own actions. Just because someone may or may not have hacked into your account or set a status message when you left your computer logged in doesn't mean you can lay the blame on the perpetrator. Sort your security out.

This could be you. This could be me. Regardless of whether we use the social network, or any other online social space, nobody can be immune from this kind of attack. But there is no firm set of methods in place or employed to prevent this from happening and persecuting somebody outside of the legal or criminal justice system, whether they have done wrong or otherwise.

Just think for one moment. What if this group was about you? Leave your thoughts.

Side note: Have you been a victim of online bullying, harrassment or a hate campaign and wish to share your story? Anonymity will be absolutey guaranteed and no names or identifiable information will be used. Feel free to send me a private email which will not be published without your express permission.

Topics: Security, Social Enterprise

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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