Friday, June 20, 2014

The Dangers of Social Media

Here's What Matters
 by Mimi Machakaire

These days there are so many ways to keep in touch with different people around the world; whether you know them personally or not, you can still find and interact with just about anyone on social media. There are about 15 prevalent social media sites, with the largest being Facebook with an estimated 900,000,000 monthly visitors. Twitter ranks second with an estimated 310,000,000 monthly visitors, while Linkedln is in third place with an estimated 255,000,000 monthly visitors. However, even though social media is ubiquitous in most of the world, there are potential dangers involved, and the issues of trust and security become very important.

When we meet someone online who shares our interests, we can feel an instant connection, and the more we interact with them, the safer we feel. But the truth is that a lot of manipulation and falsehood takes place on these sites. Most of the time, we cannot really get to know someone through a computer screen. These strangers might say things to us that they know we want to hear. This subtle manipulation might go on for a long time, wooing and lulling the victim, but at some point they finally make their move, and their true intentions become apparent: they might say things like: “Let’s meet in town,” or “I just want to finally put the face to the name”; or even: "I need money for an emergency."  Due to the trust which has already been established, many people are inclined to follow these suggestions. In some cases, this can lead to disappointment, loss of money or possessions, or even violent crime.

When the crime has been committed and police begin their investigation, they quickly realise what the victim couldn't: that the relationship between the victim and the criminal was too good to be true. Social media can influence investigations in many different ways, as Michael Knox, a former detective from Jacksonville in the US, recently clarified when he explained how criminals implicated themselves through social media posts: "For many, many years, the worst thing offenders can do to themselves is open their mouth." But Knox clarified that it was not always in the interest of justice to rely on social media in investigations: "One of the danger areas is a person testifies to one thing and it's found they've posted something different on social media. Social media is one of those things that could really come back to haunt both sides, defense and prosecution, depending on what's posted out there." These complexities make social media a minefield of mistrust, and should raise the question: if you don’t really know someone who you meet through social media, are you truly safe?

Reports claim that one of the most serious disadvantages of social media is the increase in criminal activities like identity theft, fraud and hacking, as there are no hard restrictions on creating accounts on these sites. Some could be fooled by what appears to be a celebrity's or business's profile on Facebook, but which might simply be a way to scam victims. Some people are approached by imposters who impersonate a friend or relative of the victim, or claim to be an acquaintance from high school. And many are fooled by a contact who says that they fell in love with the victim by just reading their likes and dislikes. These are warning signs which should not be ignored.

It is important to be skeptical of those met online, even on a profile that may appear to be innocent. Many people live their lives out loud, using Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to share news, express themselves and offer glimpses into their worlds, so social media becomes intrinsic to their lifestyle. But when interacting, it is important to be able to distinguish between a friend's verified  profile and a stranger who approaches you unsolicited on these sites. It is important, in the latter case, to measure how much information they are willing to share about themselves and how many conversations they have with other users. In this way, you can clearly see whether you are being targeted directly. While it is tempting and often rewarding to make new friends and develop new relationships online, it is important to remember that when something feels uneasy or "off" about the new contact, either in the way they communicate or the way their profile has been presented, you need to be much more cautious. I automatically “unfriend” and “block” these users from my lists. What is important is to exercise extreme caution when engaging in social media when you move outside of your friendship group, because with new contacts, regardless of how innocent they appear to be, you will never really know just how dangerous they are until it is too late.