August 1, 2007

To conjure a predator

facebook.gifHere's an unintentionally hilarious story on "Facebook Predators" from the New York Times.

After "three or more" of the roughly 30 million people who use Facebook were found to be convicted sex offenders (whatever that means) the Times flooded the zone, which in this case means letting an anonymous reader do their reporting for them (I wondered what Judy Miller had gotten up to).

But in some cases, Facebook’s younger users are vulnerable to sexual solicitations from older users, as was demonstrated last week to The New York Times by an anonymous person who described himself or herself in an e-mail message as “a concerned parent.” The evidence of this person’s activities on Facebook may give state investigators further cause for concern.

And what exactly was "demonstrated"?

In early July, this person opened a fake account on the site, posing as a 15-year-old girl named Jerri Gelson from North Carolina. The photograph on the fake profile page is of an under-age girl whose hair conceals her face. On the profile page, Ms. Gelson — whom the “concerned parent” said was not a real person — is described as looking for “random play” and “whatever I can get.”

This person then signed up for three dozen sexually themed groups — forums of users organized around a particular topic. In the directory of groups on Facebook, under the “sexuality” category, there are now dozens of groups with sexually explicit topics, even though Facebook prohibits “obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit” material in its Content Code of Conduct policy.

The groups that were signed up for include “addicted to masturbation ... and you know if you are!”, “Facebook Swingers” and “I’m Curious About Incest.”

When the Jerri Gelson profile was linked to these groups, her name and profile photo became visible to the group’s other users, and adult men began sexually propositioning her with e-mail messages over Facebook. “I saw your profile pic and thought I should get in touch with this hot girl!” wrote one bald, goateed man from Toronto. “Like what u see?” wrote another man from Mississippi, whose profile picture featured him sitting naked on his couch.

Several other men and women who sent e-mail messages to the Jerri Gelson account also had nude pictures of themselves on their profiles.

What?! Adults posing as teenagers looking for "random play" and joining 36 sex groups get propositioned? The system is totally broken!

This is familiar territory, of course. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a report that "online sex crimes rarely involve offenders lying about their ages or sexual motives." Now Debbie Nathan (of course!) has more.

As Nathan writes, the study was only one element of a panel discussion on Internet safety by people who actually do research, rather than just make stuff up. Here's how one panelist summed things up.

Our research, actually looking at what puts kids at risk for receiving the most serious kinds of sexual solicitation online, suggests that it’s not giving out personal information that puts kids at risk. It’s not having a blog or a personal website that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving in what we call like an internet daredevil.

We think that in order to address these crimes and prevent them, we’re gonna have to take on a lot more awkward and complicated topics that start with an acceptance of the fact that some teens are curious about sex and are looking for romance and adventure and take risks when they do that. We have to talk to them about their decision making if they are doing things like that.

Talk to kids? Acknowledge their right to make decisions?! Can't we just ban something.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Debbie Nathan cites Daniel Radosh as an authority in these matters. Perhaps a new interesting twist is this: "School Boards Rule, Internet No Longer Dangerous", now up at Slashdot.

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