When Does A Prank Become Cyberbullying? Fake Memorial Pages on Facebook Can Become A Bigger Problem

Prank: Noun A practical joke or mischievous act.

What is a prank? The definition says it’s a “joke”. Or a “mischievous act”. One would think pranks are not serious. However, in this day and age of technology, pranks are fast becoming ways to harass, torment, and cyberbully people online.

Take, for example, a recent story published on a popular online website[la1] . The story was originally (alarmingly) written with instructions on how to “kill your Facebook friend”. The author gave easy instructions – step by step – for turning a Facebook page into a memorial page. In 2009 Facebook introduced the ability for friends and family to memorialize the Facebook page of a user who dies. What happens is that the page is converted into a memorial page and deactivated from normal updates; this prevents friends from getting alerts about the deceased user. It also allows friends and family to preserve the page without having sensitive information online (contact information, for example) and prevents any new friend requests.

The problem with this is that anyone can request a Facebook account become a memorial page. When the user tries to log into their account, they get the following:

Account Inaccessible:

This account is in a special memorial state. If you have any questions or concerns, please visit the Help Center for further information.

The above-mentioned article gave explicit instructions as to how to do that. All that is needed, other than the user’s name and email (often displayed right on the page) is proof of death; this usually takes the form of a URL to a death notice, funeral home, anything that would “prove” the user is dead. For purposes of the article, the author faux-memorialized a colleague. She searched for an obituary with her colleague’s name. The death notice she chose did not remotely match up with the user she was going to memorialize for her experiment. In her own words:

The details of this obituary don’t match up at all – this guy is way older, and lives in Nebraska instead of New York.

Even worse, the names aren’t even spelled the same: he’s “Herrmann” (double R, double N) whereas the John I’m killing is “Herrman” (double R, single N)

(Note the inflammatory language she uses for her experiment)

She showed how easy it is to do this without needing much verifiable proof.

The original article included no instructions as to how to reactive one’s account – only that “if this happens to you, it is easy enough to get your account back.” Perhaps due to a letter written to the author and a comment left on the site, the article was amended to include to “warnings:”

WARNING: Don’t do this. It’s at the very least a pain in the ass for your friends.”

·         (the new title is less inflammatory but still enticing enough: How Almost Anyone Can Take You Off Facebook (And Lock You Out) with the following in the subtitle:

(The new title is less inflammatory but still enticing enough: “How Almost Anything Can Take You Off Facebook (and lock you out),” with the following in the subtitle:

Getting your buddy’s Facebook account turned into a “Memorial” state is surprisingly easy — and locks them out of Facebook. Warning: this will seriously mess up someone’s account.

Frankly, that kind of “warning” is all that may be needed to encourage a potential cyberbully.

The amended article also provides instructions for recovering one’s account. In fact, it is not easy at all for the user to recover the account. The original source for last week’s story (Rusty Foster) had it happen to him, and it took over 27 hours to get Facebook to reactivate him.

In researching further, I found out that this is not the first time a false memorial site has been requested. In 2009, Simon Thulbourn was unable to log into his Facebook page, receiving the notice that it was now a memorial account. He subsequently found out that the obituary used to convert his page didn’t even pertain to a deceased person with his name; rather, the reverend performing the service at a funeral was someone with a name similar to Thulbourn’s. It is obvious that whoever it is turning pages into memorials as per the forms filled out is not even checking the data properly to ensure that the memorial is truly accurate. It took a blog entry that he wrote and publicized describing his experience for Facebook to finally reinstate him as an active (live) user.

Facebook has not changed its process since 2009 when the method was first introduced. Users get no email nor do they get any way of confirming that they are alive (a time-sensitive email sent to the original email would be a perfect failsafe; if the user fails to respond within a set time, their page is memorialized. A live user would obviously respond).

Facebook released a statement in the recent case of Rusty Foster:

“We have designed the memorialization process to be effective for grieving families and friends, while still providing precautions to protect against either erroneous or malicious efforts to memorialize the account of someone who is not deceased,” the statement reads. “We also provide an appeals process for the rare instances in which accounts are mistakenly reported or inadvertently memorialized.”

(The old “asking for forgiveness instead of permission” approach should not be used in this case)

A big part of the problem is that this story has been publicized in the news and on social media, but the bigger problem is a site dedicated to what they call “social news” providing step-by-step instructions for how to “kill” a user on Facebook without their knowing it. And without their ever being able to prevent it.

How is this cyberbullying? Consider this: The adults who were locked out were discouraged, annoyed, and even angry. But imagine a kid, a teen, someone who may already be experiencing incidents of bullying at school, cyberbullying online – or both. Imagine that kid finding out s/he has been locked out of their Facebook account because s/he is ostensibly “dead”. As we know all too well, someone in an already-battered state of mind and diminished self-esteem can easily be pushed to the edge of despair. And at the very least, the article – which shows gross irresponsibility in its almost gleeful tone and step-by-step cyberbullying instructions – provides a new way for would-be cyberbullies to begin harassing new or favorite targets.

Cyberbullying happens all the time, and the last thing we need is new and more in-depth ways of helping those who bully. As adults, we need to model responsible online behavior. Aside from adults in a kid’s life, journalists, websites, and social media sites must provide positive examples of how the online world can be used and not expand the repertoires of bullies and tormentors.

When Simon Thulbourn’s account was converted, he had no access to his home page on Facebook. He received a screenshot from some friends who showed him how he was getting mock “Rest in Peace” messages. Imagine a kid who is now not only locked out of Facebook but is probably receiving those types of messages from the person who has created this situation and others who have joined in. We have seen the tragic reality of teenagers who have taken their own lives; we’ve seen the horrific postings of denigrating comments about those teens right on their own Facebook pages posthumously, as well as the recent example of Amanda Todd’s YouTube video and the terribly abusive comments she received after death. She never saw them but her family did. A target of this “prank” is easily the target of abusive comments on his/her own Facebook wall. And that teen will see the comments, which can only serve to further lower an already-damaged self-esteem.

As one of the key elements of cyberbullying is that it is repeated, the potential for cyberbullying in the form of hurtful comments on a fake memorial page is astronomical. The loss of one’s Facebook page through the willful, hurtful actions of another is the first step to this form of cyberbullying, but add to that the comments the user will see when the account is reactivated, and the results could be unspeakable.

It is always sad when someone dies but it is potential cyberbullying when someone is memorialized as a “prank”. Perhaps the author of said article will heed the repeated request to take the story offline. But as it’s been up for at least a week, damage may already be done. Perhaps Facebook will finally put into place proper measures of verifying memorial page requests as well as sending warning letters to users who are about to lose access to their pages. In the absence of either of those things happening, let’s be vigilant and continue to discuss the results of such “pranks” with our kids.

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