Back in March, Facebook detected and flagged a chat that could have turned ugly, as, over the social network, a man in his thirties talked about sex with a 13-year-old girl from South Florida and made plans to meet with her after school the next day. Facebook, along with a number of other websites, uses a combination of human monitoring and specialized technology to keep track of online conversations and interactions to help keep things safe for users. In this case, Facebook’s software flagged the conversation, bringing it to the attention of employees who immediately alerted the police. The police took control of the young girl’s computer and arrested the man on the following day, averting what could have become another tragic case of child abuse.
The software employed by Facebook to prevent such incidents from taking place scans for factors like age difference, mutual friends, previous interactions and phrase searches, then flags suspicious content for moderation by human employees. In addition, it draws upon an archive of online conversations that have led to sexual assaults, drawing out textual patterns in current conversations, predicting when an assault might take place and nipping dialogues in the bud before they escalate to harassment in real life.
Software designed to avert these crises is effective, but tends to be on the expensive side. Not only that, but it may scare off the 13- to 18-year-old demographic of users who expect to express themselves freely in the online sphere without being monitored. If these individuals are made to believe that they must censor themselves in online conversations by steering clear of certain topics, they may feel restricted and ultimately leave Facebook, which would hurt the the company.
As it stands, there are social sites presently operating without monitoring software, and these may appeal more to teenagers and draw them away from sites that are vigilant about would-be predators.
Last month, I wrote about users under the age of 13 signing up and socializing on Facebook, and the checks the social network is in the process of implementing in order to make it legal and safe for youngsters to access and use the site. While it probably isn’t necessary to impose the same controls on the 13-18 set, the group should still be actively protected from online predators. Though 13- to 18-year-olds are no longer children, they cannot be counted among the ranks of adults just yet; they are in the transitional stage of adolescence, and as such must be educated about and guarded from online threats to their physical and emotional health.
Interestingly, there has been little outcry about managing user privacy to put a stop to sex crimes against minors; clearly, the public is united in its abhorrence of pedophiles and does not seem to mind being monitored in the aims of child and teenager safety. Continuing in a vein similar to Perverted Justice, monitoring software may yet serve to create a “chilling effect” that will deter sexual predators from even attempting to chat up young social network users in the first place.
Word Count: 510; bhive.ca