Finding a new reality on Facebook

Is your new Facebook 'friend' really a friend or someone using a fake identity to get your personal information? How easy is it to convince someone to accept a completely made–up person as his or her friend?

A group of University of Lethbridge Faculty of Management students – all active users of social media such as Facebook – recently tested those two ideas on a group of their peers and found some surprising answers.

"With more than 300 million users, Facebook and many other social networking sites pose a growing concern for the safety of individuals who use these sites and services," says Sarah Lajeunesse, group spokesperson who worked on the term-long project with team members David Ho, Kirk Patterson, Lauren O'Dwyer and Tony Melicchio. "Our primary concern with the increasing popularity of these sites is the consequences and dangers that we, as users, are potentially facing."

With that idea in mind, their assignment for the Information Systems component of the Integrated Management Experience (IME) program – under the supervision of IME Director Dan Kazakoff and Management Information Systems Professor Gordon Hunter – turned into a research-based episode of the popular MTV program Punk'd, where average people are fooled by sophisticated stunts.

In this case it was frighteningly simple.

"We have all heard about people putting up fake identities for criminal or revenge purposes, but we wanted to actually test how easy it could be to fool Facebook users," says Lajeunesse. "Our group created an imaginary female, who in less than 24 hours managed to entice more than 25 users to become her 'friends' – including complete strangers and many students from our more than 50-person research group. What really surprised us was the speed with which the 'friendship' requests were accepted, and also that one-third of the respondents who accepted this fake person as a friend started up an online conversation. As well, at least two people expected to have dates with our fake person within the week."

Lajeunesse adds the male-to-female ratio of acceptances was 65 to 35 per cent.

Their work raises concerns about the overall validity of online identities, and serves as a warning for people of all ages to be more careful about who they accept as friends or interact with online.

While the idea of people being so easily conned into accepting a completely fake person as a friend seems absurd, Lajeunesse says that as Facebook and other social networking sites are increasing in popularity at an exponential rate, so too are the number of false identities.

"Unfortunately, the social networking sites lack the technology, the legal power, or, in some cases, the will to prevent these abuses," she says. "Learning about this issue was a huge wake-up call for our group and our class. We really want people to know about our results, because this was very easy for us to do. It is not a stretch to assume that it is equally easy for others who might have bad intentions to do as well. We hope that by learning more about this issue – and talking about it – parents can increase their level of supervision to protect the young, our most vulnerable, yet least cautious, users."

The fact that young adults and teenagers are being taken in by fake Facebook pages is not a surprise to Dr. Mary Dyck.

A researcher in the U of L's Kinesiology and Physical Education department who is an expert on cyber bullying and inappropriate use of online communities, Dyck collaborated on Canada's first-ever study on rural teens' online social communication with U of L Faculty of Education researchers Dr. Pamela Adams and Dr. Robin Bright.

"Our research supports that the more information someone puts online, the more vulnerable they become to bullying, targeted marketing, predators, unwanted harassment and intrusions, and feelings of discomfort," says Dyck. "Facebook is an online community. Nothing is safe online. We can only make every attempt to be safer online by restricting our images and information, setting privacy settings for content and applications, and continually being aware of our own behaviour – and the information presented by the IME student group confirms that."