Thursday, January 2, 2014

Sextortion, Tweets, and other Dangers of Social Media

This past fall, the FBI arrested 19-year-old Jared James Abrahams, a computer-science student in Southern California, for "sextortion."

Abrahams had infected young women's computers with malware that allowed him to control their webcams and collect compromising pictures of them. He then blackmailed his victims by threatening to go public with the images unless they sent him nude pictures or videos, or did his bidding for five minutes on Skype.

According to newspaper reports, one of his victims pled with him to stop. "Please remember I'm only 17. Have a heart," she wrote. He replied, "I'll tell you this right now! I do NOT have a heart!!!"

Abrahams threatened one young woman by telling her that her "dream of being a model will be transformed into a pornstar."

In November, he plead guilty to extortion and unauthorized access of a computer and now faces up to 11 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Nor is Abrahams the first sextortion case. In March 2010, another young man, Luis Mijangos, was arrested for similar crimes. After searching his four laptops, the FBI found "15,000 webcam-video captures, 900 audio recording, and 13,000 screen captures" gathered from more than 230 victims, according to GQ magazine.

Meanwhile, as the Abrahams case was unfolding, on a Boston College Confessions Facebook page, where students post anonymous messages about their college experience, a student confessed to raping three women.

In the post, according to the Boston Globe, the student admitted to raping three young women while they were drunk and incapacitated. "On the one hand," he wrote, "I know that I need to get help, but on the other hand, I can't help but be driven to do it again."

After the post caused an uproar, the student who posted it turned himself into the Boston College police, claiming it was a hoax. The student was referred to the student conduct system.

These are admittedly sensational cases. But they illustrate the bewildering and potentially dangerous problems social media can present for college students. We've already written about social media and sexual assault, but cases like those described above make it clear that there are other dangers as well.

In their 2010 annual Campus Computing Survey, the Campus Computing Project found that roughly a sixth of participating campuses reported an incident (such as cyberstalking) related to "student activity on social networking sites." Over a quarter of public universities reported incidents related to social networking sites, almost double what had been reported in 2009.

As we enter a new year, it seems clear that the number of such incidents will continue to rise as more and more students arrive on campus thoroughly engaged with social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. According to the Pew Research Center's "Pew Internet and American Life Project," 72% of adults online use social networking sites. For young adults, the numbers are even higher: 89% of 18-29 year old internet users use social networking sites. 30% of 18-29 year old internet users tweet.

Interim Measures

Students already have a variety of advice columns, classes, and programs they can take to learn or even major in social media. But in response to the prevalence of social media use, some scholars and administrators want to go further by adding courses on digital identity to the core curriculum.

Writing for InsideHigherEd, Eric Stoller speculated,

Digital identity may be the next addition to 'the core'. The manner in which we engage, share, promote, and present ourselves online has become a major facet in many of our lives. No longer seen as being separate from 'real life', an individual’s digital identity is intricately connected to their overall identity... It’s no longer optional for institutions (and their administrators) to passively engage students via social media. Actively creating learning spaces that foster positive development of digital identity should be our mandate.

Interestingly, one place to look for guidance might be college athletics. Because of the high profile and role student athletes perform as representatives of their schools, their social media use has come under particularly intense scrutiny.

Last year, star Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel ("Johnny Football") announced he was leaving Twitter. Manziel had over 330,000 followers on Twitter at the time. He was leaving because his tweets and social media posts had caused too much controversy. "It's fun to have," Manziel told ESPN, "but it can get to be distracting."

The self-imposed ban didn't last. The young star now has over half-a-million followers.
Some schools actively train athletes on how to use social media effectively. Recognizing that a ban on social media is unrealistic, programs encourage students to use social media more self-reflectively by asking them to set goals for social media use and then sticking to them.

In a blog post on athletes and social media, Kevin DeShazo of Fieldhouse Media, a firm that helps student-athletes and coaches manage social media, poses two essential questions for athletes to ask themselves: "Who am I? What do I want to be known for?"

DeShazo elaborates:

We all have different goals and reasons for using social media. Regardless of why you use the platforms, the answer[s] to those two questions are still important. While the answers may change over time, as we grow and mature and goals change, they are still questions that must be answered today. They impact not only what you share online but who you interact with, who you friend/follow, your bio, profile pictures, usernames, etc. Every action and interaction impacts your identity and your reputation.

In a world where social media is becoming a crucial aspect of many students' identities, not just those caught in the public eye of NCAA sports, that's good advice for any young student.

1 comment:

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