Is Facebook culpable in Amanda Todd's death?
By now, many of us are familiar with the sad details behind Amanda Todd's death.
As a human, a man, a brother to four sisters, an uncle to a beautiful 10-year-old niece, and hopefully one day a father, Amanda Todd's story breaks my heart. Feelings of helplessness and depression have touched my life in a personal way, and I can only get two minutes into the video she posted before I am overcome and cannot continue to watch. [Warning: in addition to the video, there are graphic, disturbing comments, which should have been disabled long ago.]
But beyond the screaming headlines taking almost macabre joy in the eyeballs they can attract over a pretty cheerleader who met an untimely end, there are some important questions raised. In a society where we have the responsibility to protect the weakest amongst us, how was a ruthless sex predator able to target this child so easily?
The answers require much soul searching and reach far beyond what I can write in this space.
Krissy Darch has written an excellent piece delving into the misogynistic aspects of the story. The culture of victim blaming is all too familiar. A Toronto police officer instructing female students that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." The US military telling female soldiers that the only way to avoid being raped is to not go out alone (as seen in the gripping documentary "The Invisible War").
Then there's the lack of seriousness the Vancouver Police took towards the rising body count of serial killer Robert Pickton's sex trade victims. After all, weren't these just the associated risks of the sex trade workers' "chosen" lifestyle? And now, a "stupid" young girl killed herself because she shared images of her body with a stranger on the Internet. All this could be avoided if women just accepted men for the testosterone fueled animals that we are and took due precautions.
Never mind that Amanda was simply exploring her newfound sexuality in a manner that she thought was harmless and anonymous. Never mind that a sick manipulative predator groomed her to fulfill his own depravity and exacted revenge on her when she bravely fought him off. But predators have been taking advantage of young naive girls for time immemorial. Why is this time different?
It is different because it exposes the systemic flaws that the rapid march of technology has created in our society. Amidst all this change, we have not taken the time to fully reflect on the implications and put the required safeguards in place.
Let's start with Facebook. It's a publicly traded company and social network that has embedded itself in our lives like no other technology has. We've given it great power, and it is in Facebook's best interest to chip away at our privacy to increase "stickiness" and by extension, profits. We've put our trust in Facebook, and it has failed us in many ways, but it particularly failed Amanda.
I've done a little test to demonstrate how this is.
I signed up for a Facebook account, using the pseudonym "Jane Smith" and declared that Jane was a 15 year old female. The first page asks Jane for her real name and email address. That was easy. The next page asks Jane to allow access to her email account so it can automatically add all of her friends.
When she follows the tiny link at the bottom to skip this step, it pops up a warning that "People who complete this step usually find up to 20 friends, and Facebook is a lot more fun with friends."
Well, is Jane not a fun person?
OK, she'll let Facebook access all the personal details of her address book.
The next page tells Jane to put in her high school, and the year she will be graduating. After she puts in a school, Facebook immediately pulls up some profiles and prompts her to add them. She sees that cute boy from English class. One click and they're now "friends."
Now she's told to add a profile picture. If she doesn't have one handy, Facebook will take one of her from her webcam. As a teenage girl, she better make it sexy, so the cute boy from English class will pay attention.
One final click, and her online identity is complete. She's now one of the billion people on Facebook.
Next, she's prompted to "say what's on her mind." Well, she's about to shop for clothes, so she puts in the location, and who she's with, because Facebook asks.
Facebook makes this so easy, and fun!
Let's review: in about 2 minutes, under my pseudonym as a 15 year old girl, I've published my full name, an identifying photo of my face, my age and date of birth, where I go to school, my city, a list of my social connections, where I currently am and who I'm with. Because Jane is underage, Facebook has "limited" the people that can see all this info to "Friends of Friends."
"Friends of Friends."
Sounds rather personal and safe. But let's say I gather about 200 Facebook "Friends" (almost certainly an underestimate for the typical user). Each of those "Friends" also has 200 "Friends."
If you do the math, just by going about my daily Facebook business, I've revealed all my pertinent private information to the 40,000 people who are "Friends of Friends." I've done all this without a whiff of mention from Facebook about privacy or the implications of publicizing this information.
It's easy to think about online privacy as some kind of ephemeral concept.
We've been conditioned so deeply to this way of thinking by the likes of 28 year old Facebook Founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, that we mostly don't even think twice.
Perhaps not so incidentally, Zuckerberg's first foray into social media was an application named Facemash, which illegally accessed his Harvard classmates' personal information and prompted its users to rate their attractiveness. One light slap on the wrist later, Zuckerberg was on his way to creating Facebook. Now, ten years later, this young man is the arbiter of the greatest trove of personal information in human history, with little or no oversight. Has Facebook changed some privacy settings to publish some of your private information, without notification? Tough. Zuckerberg knows best.
But Facebook is not alone in all of this.
At the time Amanda's predator published her photo, under section 163 of the Criminal Code, distribution of child pornography was punishable by a minimum of 90 days to a maximum of 2 years of imprisonment (the minimum has since been raised to 6 months).
Child pornography is defined to include "a photographic, film, video or other visual representation, whether or not it was made by electronic or mechanical means the dominant characteristic of which is the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual organ or the anal region of a person under the age of eighteen years." Bare breasts have been declared by the courts to be included as a sexual organ.
We know that the RCMP were involved in this early. What we don't know is where that led to. They are keeping their mouths shut. Did they hold the predator to account? Do they even have the means to?
We don't know all the specifics. But unless Amanda's predator took considerable efforts to hide his tracks, with the help of Facebook, the police could have rapidly tracked him down and punished him accordingly.
What went wrong?
Did the officers responding not know the proper channels to pursue the investigation?
What responsibility does Facebook have to be upfront when criminal activity involving minors occurs on its network?
Should it initiate investigations itself and provide as much information to police as needed?
The RCMP owes the public an explanation, and a rapid one. Not an explanation that takes years to move through bureaucratic channels. We don't have years.
Amanda's death, at least in part, was a result of our society's inability to bridge the divide between digital and "real" lives. And yet that divide is growing smaller and smaller every passing day. A chilling thought: for every Amanda that is reported on, how many similar cases of online child predation go unreported? How many don't fight back as Amanda did, and are further and further controlled by their predators?
The Vancouver Observer will be following up on these issues in the following weeks. Massoud Hayoun will be digging into Facebook's policies and looking into similar stories to Amanda's. I believe we'll be hearing more from Krissy Darch about some of the gender issues involved. The Vancouver Observer's investigative team will definitely keep you informed as details emerge about RCMP involvement in the case. You can follow all the updates about Amanda Todd and related issues on the Vancouver Observer here. You can also subscribe to our newsletter, where we'll keep you posted on ALL the important stories that we are reporting on.