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.
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.
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?