Commentary

Should Facebook Let You Lie?

facebook places

If you are like most people, you have probably lied to someone at some point in your life, if only as a child. As adults, I believe most of us accept the need for "white" lies to smooth over social awkwardness. But what about more serious lies -- like claiming someone did something disreputable, to tarnish their image? Obviously this is "not okay" in an ethical sense... but where should social networks like Facebook draw the line in their policies for false user-generated content?

I was prompted to think about this by Facebook's new Places geo-location service. One feature, which is bound to stir privacy concerns, allows a Facebook member who is checked into a location to "check-in" their friends as well, as long as these friends are on Facebook and haven't opted out of Places. Facebook execs say this feature is intended to allow everyone to participate, even if they don't have smartphones with Web access. But there is an obvious question of personal boundaries.

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According to Facebook's current rules, the check-in will appear on the "checkee's" profile only after they approve the update -- but it appears automatically in the "checker's" profile, which might be visible to everyone, as well as scores of news feeds. Basically, this means you could claim to be somewhere with someone without their knowledge or approval, even if they're not actually present. Depending on who is being checked-in by whom, and where the check-in occurs, you could do some pretty serious damage to another person's reputation, maliciously or unintentionally.

It's one thing if the check-in happens to be true: if a guy is checked-in by his ex-girlfriend at a bar when he said he was at the gym, this may raise some awkward -- but legitimate -- questions in the context of his current relationship. People are already in the habit of broadcasting indiscretions on Facebook: according to the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers, divorce lawyers are collecting evidence of infidelity from online photo albums, profile pages, wall comments, status updates and tweets.

But then there's the other possibility -- fake check-ins (or status updates, tweets, or wall comments) tarnishing someone's image with malicious intent. Needless to say these kinds of falsehood have always been part of the human experience; see Othello and Desdemona. But as a new communications technology, do social networks have an obligation to police user-generated content for truthfulness?

In the case of fake check-ins, I suppose this would mean taking down a check-in if the "checkee" objected by stating that it wasn't true. However, this gets into the thorny issue of figuring out who is telling the truth -- a classic "he said, she said" conflict which social network administrators probably aren't competent to resolve.

Facebook's terms of use leave the situation somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, Facebook expects that users "will not provide any false personal information on Facebook," "will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory," and "will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else's rights or otherwise violates the law," at the risk of having the content (or their entire profile) deleted. On the other hand, the terms of use also state that "we do not guarantee that Facebook will be safe or secure" and "Facebook is not responsible for the actions, content, information, or data of third parties."

Turning to legal remedies, I guess the checkee/victim could sue the checker for libel. But charges of libel can be very difficult to prove: the defendant can always claim a number of excuses for making the false statement in good faith -- e.g., based on a mistaken perception ("I could have sworn it was him") or "innocent dissemination" ("I didn't see him personally, but it was crowded and my friend told me he was there").

This leaves us with self-policing, or more accurately, self-help justice: if one member is making false, damaging statements about another member, the victim's best recourse may be posting vehement denials, presenting a convincing alibi, and enlisting friends to post "testimony" countering the false rumors. If that doesn't work, I can imagine injured parties escalating to (possibly ill-advised) aggressive social counterattacks -- for example, sending messages to the transgressor's friends urging them to "defriend" or otherwise ostracize him or her.

All these reactions might seem melodramatic or overblown, but what is the appropriate response when a person is trying to use disinformation (whether in the form of open accusations or subtle insinuations) to break up a marriage or get someone fired?

6 comments about "Should Facebook Let You Lie?".
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  1. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, August 24, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    Not sure about the defamation analysis (sources?) but otherwise an insightful - and extremely timely - commentary.

  2. Stephanie Fierman from Marketing Mojo Inc., August 24, 2010 at 2:03 p.m.

    The appropriate response is to block Places on Facebook. I don't think it's melodramatic to envision a problem if a friend says I'm in x location, where x is entirely unacceptable on its own, or when if I'm supposed to be somewhere else! It is beyond me that the FB app doesn't just allow the individual to check in, but allows me to say where YOU are when that information could be so easily manipulated for disreputable purposes.

    I know there are plenty of people freaked out about this, but who also think it's just another sort of "goofy" thing that will lose steam fast. Are we sure? What if an individual erroneously claims that Mr. X is at a strip joint? With the deep Web et al, can anyone absolutely guarantee that Mr. X's erroneous check-in won't appear in his Google results years later?

  3. Christie Adams from SaleSpider.com, August 24, 2010 at 2:19 p.m.

    Small businesses have already found that people abuse sites like Foursquare to get special offers without ever actually patronizing the business first.

    This is where the "social" side of social media will really have to kick in, where integrity and common sense iwill trump whatever someone's status update says.

  4. Jim Petillo from Connective DX, August 24, 2010 at 4:40 p.m.

    I'm still wondering what further "Auto-opt-in, Pain-in-the-butt-to-opt-out" liberties with personal privacy need to be taken before people say "Enough is enough. I'm done with Facebook."

  5. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, August 25, 2010 at 3:21 a.m.

    There is nothing legitimate about someone checking a man in somewhere else who told his wife or girlfriend that he was at the gym or working late. We shouldn't have to remember to opt-out of that nightmare scenario.

    I hope nobody here sees technology as a way of enforcing Beta Male subjugation by their mates or as a valid and legitimate society-wide enforcement of monogamy.

    Cell phones can be shut off. Mates are not yet able to locate by GPS where their partner's cell phone is located.

  6. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, August 25, 2010 at 10:49 a.m.

    Facebook is a bunch of sleazeballs end of story. people are leaving in droves the minute there is a worthy alternative. They always fail to make all this 100% opt in no matter what they roll out as a new feature. They never explain to people what these will mean. Only a small percent of Facebook Users know that if they click 'Like' outside the Facebook site they have just opened their stream to advertising. Google might not be perfect but they try 'Do No Evil' Facebook is in my view an Ethics Basketcase that doesn't care of they do evil. In fact they just don't care about the user at all. There was a time when they did like 3 years ago. Every time a Network stops caring about the user they get toasted.

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