A very sad event placed social media into the news spotlight last week. According to news outlets including CNN.com, a couple was murdered and their bodies left hanging from a bridge in Mexico for supposedly denouncing violence and illegal activities being perpetrated by Mexican drug cartels. A threatening hand written message was found near the bodies warning of further violence to those who use social media outlets to speak negatively about them. Although law enforcement has been unable to confirm exactly what the couple had posted online that made them a target, the murders underline an important thing to consider when using social media; Privacy.
The appearance of anonymity on the internet can unleash the beast in many people. How many times have you read gossip blogs or other types of blogs that contain false or misleading statements about a celebrity or other public figure? I have read more pregnancy rumors surrounding Beyoncé and Jennifer Aniston over the years than I can count! What about the mean spirited comments left on these blogs by readers hiding behind an avatar and a fake name? Because they do not believe that they will be held accountable for their comments, libelous and defamatory speech is wafting across the internet like a bad odor. (Check out CNN’s take on ‘The Scourge of Internet Anonymity‘)
Although you may believe that whatever you post on the internet cannot be traced back to you, the undeniable truth is that there is no true internet anonymity. Whenever you initiate a transmission on the internet it leaves a trail that can be followed right to your computer. Every time you hear of some crazy (or not so crazy) crime that has been committed, you can be pretty sure that the police have confiscated the suspect’s computers for analysis. After all, even when you drop that file in the recycling bin or delete your browser history, almost everything you have ever done on that computer can be retrieved. In many ways this is a good thing. Remember when Dateline NBC was running constant installments of the ‘To Catch A Predator‘ series? A government task force would hunt down pedophiles in chat rooms and other internet forums by posing as underage kids and engage in sexually explicit exchanges. They would use these chats to set up meetings between the pedophiles and the fictitious kids and then arrest them when they arrived at the designated meeting point. In the case of rampant pedophilia, or other egregious felonious behaviors, I am glad that there are ways of identifying the seemingly anonymous on the internet.
But what about cases in which, like the two unfortunate victims of the Mexico killings, the lack of privacy leads to danger? There are tools on the internet that can track where you are in the world using your IP address and mapping software. Accounts you thought you disabled years ago still show up in web searches. Cyberstalking has become a serious and dangerous issue due to the wealth of personal information that can be found about an individual online, much of which is posted by that person themselves on various social networking sites! Could the killers have tracked this poor couple down using sensitive information found on their profile pages? Who knows?!
While we cannot be deterred from standing up for what we believe is right by the murderous drug cartels, overreaching governments or others who seek to silence us, it is important when using the internet to protect yourself at all times. For tips on avoiding cyberstalking visit privacyrights.org.
But first, go ahead and Google yourself, and don’t forget to check Google Images as well. What you find might freak you out. . .