My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Deception + fear + humiliation != education

I hate fear-based approaches to education. I grew up on the “this is your brain on drugs” messages and watched classmates go from being afraid of drugs to trying marijuana to deciding that all of the messages about drugs were idiotic. (Crystal meth and marijuana shouldn’t be in the same category.) Much to my frustration, adults keep turning to fear to “educate” the kids with complete disregard to the unintended consequences of this approach. Sometimes, it’s even worse. I recently received an email from a friend of mine (Chloe Cockburn) discussing an issue brought before the ACLU. She gave me permission to share this with you:

A campus police officer has been offering programs about the dangers inherent in using the internet to middle and high school assemblies. As part of her presentation she displays pictures that students have posted on their Facebook pages. The idea is to demonstrate that anyone can have access to this information, so be careful. She gains access to the students’ Facebook pages by creating false profiles claiming to be a student at the school and asking to be “friended”, evidently in violation of Facebook policy.

An ACLU affiliate received a complaint from a student at a small rural high school. The entire assembly was shown a photo of her holding a beer. The picture was not on the complainant’s Facebook page, but on one belonging to a friend of hers, who allowed access to the bogus profile created by the police officer. The complainant was not “punished” as the plaintiff above was, but she was humiliated, and she is afraid that she will not get some local scholarship aid as a result.

So here we have a police officer intentionally violating Facebook’s policy and creating a deceptive profile to entrap teenagers and humiliate them to “teach them a lesson”??? Unethical acts + deception + fear + humiliation != education. This. Makes. Me. Want. To. Scream.

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19 comments to Deception + fear + humiliation != education

  • Been there, done that.

    A year ago I was asked to present at a local high school parent group on the broad theme of “internet safety”. I warned the school that i would not be painting a doom and gloom picture but sharing a very balanced, potentially utopian view of social networking. What I didn’t know was that a police officer, who admitted to me, “I don’t really know much about the internet” would be sharing with parents about the evils of the internet. Fortunately I spoke last and told everyone that I pretty much totally disagreed with the officer’s statements.

    Even more shocking was what the school did to their students the next day. The councillor had created a fake facebook account to befriend students and then at an assembly the day after the parent presentations, revealed to the students that the fake account was actually an “evil biker” who could potentially prey on them. The news report which I attached on my blog was called “deception with a purpose”. What an awful message in distrust and fear mongering.

    Here’s my post on it.

    http://ideasandthoughts.org/2009/04/22/the-continuing-saga/

    Thanks for all you do.

  • Brian B

    I once saw a lesbian comic* (Lea DeLaria?) talk about seeing one of those “your brain on drugs” commercials with a punkish young woman who “demonstrated” the effects of bad substances by smashing things in her house. When the girl said “Any questions?” the comic replied, “Your phone number!”

  • clobbered

    Is “this is your brain on drugs” a real equivalent here? That is a case of well, something false, and is ineffective because it can be trivially proven wrong with minor experimentation and then lead to a dangerously wrong over-generalisation (the equivalent that really pissed me off when I was younger was hearing girls be told “kissing will make you pregnant”)

    In this case, the policeman is effectively saying “somebody can violate Facebook’s TOS and fake their identity and gain access to pictures of you”. That isn’t *actually* false, is it? Unless he then added “and will show your pictures to white slavers who will then kidnap you on the request of an evil Sheikh” or something. Or if he used police powers to obtain the pictures. The only questionable thing here that I can see is showing the whole class. If he had just shown the teen in question the photo, would you still object?

    (PS: I give very positive talks on internet participation, but I do stick to “if you don’t want your mother to ever see this, don’t post it on the Internet” – perhaps this is overly broad, but I usually talk to younger kids and I think that is not a terrible starting point).

  • It’s so wrong to use subterfuge to catch out young people. It’s such a non event but yet it could affect this young persons life.

  • Jason Treit

    Wow, this officer’s warped lens of authority could almost qualify her for a vice-principal position in the Lower Marion School District. Next slide: things a stalker could find out if they stalked you like I did yesterday! Next slide: fun with thermal imaging!

    “In this case, the policeman is effectively saying “somebody can violate Facebook’s TOS and fake their identity and gain access to pictures of you’.”

    Calling attention to a hypothetical wrong by carrying it most of the way through is… wrong.

  • FB’s TOS is violated by students as well. If the goal of the officer was to show that anyone could get access to a profile, then she accomplished that. The PEW study you mentioned earlier did make the comment… “Yet, young adults are by far the most likely to say that they have posted content to social networking sites that they later regret sharing.” It seems we all experience that ‘learning curve’ early in our lives.

    Scare tactics are probably appealing because they’re quicker and require less man-power – which unfortunately results in less informed guidance. And as you mention, their effectiveness is lost and usually replaced with misinformation. Or even worse, disinterest.

  • Clobberd: Yes. _I_ would still object. The officer did not ask the teen’s permission to show her photo. The fact that it did show her holding a beer and that it *might* cause her to lose a scholarship is a major issue for me. The officer has now made this teen the center of attention, and negative attention at that. IMO it is very close to bullying (bullies often call out their victims in public, humiliating them).

    The officer could have easily done what she did, but asked a couple of the students if she could use their photos as examples. This would have made the same point (though slightly less effective). Though this still would be a violation of FB’s ToU.

    As for a lesson on internet safety and whether to use fear or not.. well, I’m on the fence. I think the majority of any talk should be about positive aspects of internet use, but highlighting how to be safe, giving statistics about how kids are exploited (either directly or indirectly), etc. Then yes, name/use a few examples. Talk about how many young girls (and boys) are lured into exposing themselves on video chat sites, then the images captured and shared on the web. Video chat is fine & fun, but like clobberd said: what happens on the internet stays on the internet. Forever. … Talk about how you should not meet those whom you have met on the web in real life without being safe (go with friends, public place, let your parents know…) There are much more constructive and less humiliating ways to get the message across.

    IMO the officer should be reprimanded, and If I were the kid’s parents I would look into a good Lawyer, especially if she looses any scholarships over this. If a normal citizen posed as a youth and started downloading images of kids, there would (hopefully) be strong consequences; why is it OK for a police officer (when not part of an investigation)?

  • anonymouse

    I think there was some education going on: the students were taught not to trust cops.

  • pascal

    Seeing as this approach to “education” won’t go away very soon: you could also use two fake profiles, with fake A being evil, and fake B being the student. Nobody gets harmed, some stock photography of drunken people gets shown, hilarity ensues.

  • I had a student once, back when I was teaching middle school, who said something rude about me in a Facebook community I happened to look at (one pertaining to the subject I was teaching him….) I took him aside, privately, and explained that, you know, I can see that, etc., and he was terribly embarrassed and apologetic and, when I glanced at his profile later, I saw it was a lot more locked-down, and the publicly visible content was not stuff that was going to get him into trouble with anyone (which hadn’t been true previously, and wasn’t necessarily true of my other students — who knew, btw, that the faculty were increasingly on FB, and were very interested in discussing who was & wasn’t).

    So there were definitely privacy conversations that needed to happen with that population, but — *gasp* — those can be actual conversations. But I suppose that would entail, you know, engaging and forming relationships and having trust and all that is terribly time-consuming. “This is your brain on Facebook” is so much simpler, huh. (<–dripping sarcasm)

  • I think it’s very important to teach young people just how visible they can be if they aren’t mindful of who has access to information about them. (This is to help them avoid awkward situations with friends and family; I’m not talking about rapists or kidnappers or anything like that). Danah has talked about helping a young girl realize that Facebook content she’d never show to her mother is visible to her mother because the girl set it to “Friends of friends” and her mother is in that category. It’s evident that a lot of kids are only learning about this kind of thing by making mistakes. Now, learning from one’s mistakes is ok, but isn’t part of the point of education to make learning a little more efficient and safer? Isn’t it worth it trying to show kids, if nothing else, that most social networks’ default privacy settings are crap and that you shouldn’t “friend” every acquaintance into one big group who can see everything that you post (or that is posted about you)?

    I made some social faux-pas in middle school and high school (before social networking) and in college. It was those experiences (and others) that allowed me to immediately know, the moment I started using these networks, that I needed to manage who sees what, and that I needed to tweak the privacy settings. If these networks are being used by kids too young to have made such faux-pas or too stupid to learn from them (as is shown by these accounts of kids using very lax and “open” privacy settings/practices), then education or parenting or something should probably step in and say “Do you realize that anyone can see this? People DO see this. Do you realize what the consequences could be?”.

    Creating a fake profile, and then publicly showing content posted by people who were stupid enough to friend the fake profile (or to have that content publicly visible anyways), doesn’t sound all that terrible to me. I mean, these people are asking for it. Better it be done by a police officer in a school than by someone more malicious.

  • Student

    The girl seems to have lost her claim when she allowed herself to photographed holding a beer. This is now someone else’s property, and when they paste it on Facebook, it becomes Facebook’s property. Perhaps her complaint should be against the other student. As for the police officer, violating Facebook’s TOS comes with no real consequence, save maybe being kicked off facebook. But, to claim entrapment is outrageous. She cannot say she was not predisposed when she willingly drank the beer at least days before the assembly.

  • ta7rir

    I was recently speaking to a community worker who I met while facilitating a sexual health workshop (on immigrant and refugee youth sexual health). The worker described that when she worked with youth clients at her centre, she would show them graphic images of STI’s to “educate” them about the issue.

    The problem with fear-based educational strategies, including the one you mentioned above, is that it doesn’t actually give people the tools to deal with the issues when they are in a compromising situation. Instead of remembering how to use a condom/dental dam, or be aware of your online privacy settings, you remember that horrible picture of crabs, or how much it sucked that one of their friends got their picture held up to an entire assembly. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear that educators think this is effective.

  • It would be better if a school challenged its students to develop a presentation/guide on proper online behavior. Class time could be used to have students research the issues and develop their own ideas about the risks and rewards of social media. The instructor would just guide their research and recommendations. The results could be shared at a school wide function, with the students presenting.

  • Shane

    Nobody at that presentation will walk away uncertain about the ramifications of sharing info online, which seems like a pretty effective lesson, and ones the touchy feely methods advocated on this blog have utterly failed to accomplish. Since half the people in the universe are creating fake profiles, getting outraged that a cop did it to prove a point strikes me as naiive to the point of absurdity.

  • I help advise my city’s public schools on technology and the internet, and here’s a little real-life story: after a HS girl in another town hanged herself after unrelenting online harrassment, all the schools in the states were in a lather as to how to react. They had no time to actually investigate how best to address things, and no funds to support pretty much anything. (This is a ‘middle class’ district where the toner cartridges ran out of ink in December, leaving the teachers to buy/hoard their own cuz there was no $$).

    So they grab a local cop to come in and give his talk. Sad, (ineffective) but true. At least the guy in the example knew how to use Facebook! : /

    In a larger sense, it seems like the larger issue is a disconnect between notions of privacy. Do I care if someone knows I like the show “So You Think You Can Dance?” Not a whit. We internet educator folks often mention how information online is often false or misleading; could it be that kids immersed in this environment value transparency and authenticity over more suspect communications? Let it all hang out!! This is who I am, no kidding!! That others will often be less than accepting of others’ transgressions suggests that we’re not quite there yet.

  • It’s an interesting tactic. It is amazing what people do and don’t know about Facebook and settings. I ran a similar exercise (without having to resort to subterfuge as it was all open access) for youth workers. However instead of using the pictures and being public with them I ran a “Someone in this room is….” and then a list of things like who they might be friends with, what groups they’re in, fan pages etc. It got the message across very clearly and many have now lockdown their personal profiles. In all these areas it’s important that there is education (the how to) as well as the why. It’s all very well scaremongering but the most important part is the discussion and understanding rather than the fear. The skills to do something different.

    In this case I think that the Police Officer could well have gotten the information required without pretending to be someone else. I also think that it is not acceptable to publicly humiliate a young person about what is or isn’t on their SNS profile especially in front of peers.

  • Larry Lyon

    The easy response to this situation is to delve into a discussion of “memes” and how ideas such as religion perpetuate their own existence by claiming at the same time that they offer the only road to salvation and that opposing ideas will lead to damnation.

    The internet and applications such as social networking sites like “Facebook” provide the means for creation of alternative societies. These pose a risk to more traditional societies based on hierarchical orders such as family, government and church and attacks are to be expected.

    The simpler (and I think more likely) answer is that people in positions of authority, including teachers or police simply don’t think that societal and legal rules and norms which are supposed to apply to everyone, apply to them. Therefore, its fine to misrepresent your identity, invade peoples privacy and pass along your opinions whether based on fact or fancy.

    After all, “the ends justify the means.”

  • Dan C

    I’ll admit I’m on the fence about this one . . . the comparisons of the ‘brain on drugs’ commercials to what this police officer did are both similar and yet worlds apart. I agree Crystal Meth is very different than Marijuana but a stranger is still a stranger whether is be a police officer, the local perv, or even a parent making a fake account to spy on their kids. While I completely disagree with the way the police officer handled this situation, the lesson is that you should be careful of what information you not only put out there yourself but what your friends put out there for you. It goes beyond just what you do when you sit at the computer but who you let take a picture of you with a digital camera (thank god I grew up in the days of film). I would be completely fine with this officers approach and method if he/she would have done the responsible action of blurring out the students faces. Trust me the ones in the photo would have known what the cop saw but had the ability to remain anonymous with their peers and teachers.

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