SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 31, 2013

Our view: Facebook, Te'o and the limits of 'friendship'


The Salem News

---- — There are plenty of cautionary stories out there about the underworld of social media, but none has captured the nation’s attention quite like the tale of Diane O’Meara.

O’Meara’s strange tale demonstrates that no one who uses social media tools such as Facebook should fall into a false sense of security based on “privacy settings,” nor put much stock in a naive belief that the word “friend” has the same meaning in social media as it does in the world where friends actually meet in person. Many people amass hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of Facebook “friends” with whom they share personal and sometimes intimate information. As O’Meara learned, they do so at their own peril.

O’Meara is a 23-year-old woman from Los Angeles who describes herself as a “media executive and consumer Internet analyst.” By all accounts, she has a more savvy understanding of social media than the average Facebook user. But that didn’t stop her from becoming caught up in the biggest social media scandal that the nation has seen.

She had no idea that for months her personal photos — grabbed by a Facebook “friend” — had been used as the face of Lennay Kekua, the fictional girlfriend of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o. Te’o had carried on an Internet social relationship with this “girlfriend” for months and went into mourning when he received the shocking news in September that she had died of leukemia. The story of Te’o’s grief made national headlines, and certainly earned him sympathy.

But it was all a lie, exposed in vivid detail in recent weeks. Te’o has claimed he was hoodwinked, the victim of a scam.

Not everyone believes him, but it is hard to discount the fact that O’Meara is a true victim in this charade.

O’Meara’s opinion piece on the matter, published in the Los Angeles Times this weekend, is insightful and worthy of a read by anyone who uses social media. She points out how social media’s definition of a “friend” is far broader than that of the offline world. Like many Facebookers, she amassed a mountain of social media friends. She set her privacy settings quite tight, but the end result was still loose enough to let in people whom she never would have allowed so close in person.

A fellow graduate of her high school who had been stalking her through Facebook for years, used pictures of her without her knowledge to create Kekua. He has since called her and apologized, but as O’Meara points out, he can’t undo what has been done.

O’Meara has closed out all her social media accounts. She’s off the grid, and humiliated.

“... I still can’t quite believe it all happened. But looking back on it now, there are things I wish I’d done differently, even though the precautions I took exceeded those of many Facebook users,” O’Meara wrote earlier this week.

“Eventually, I’ll go back to using social media. But I’ll take an even more cautious approach. I’ll have a new definition of who I agree to ‘friend,’ and it will be much closer to the old definition of friendship. My friends will be those I actually know and trust. If someone sends me a ‘friend’ request, I will be as discerning as I am in choosing who I include in my offline life.”

Facebook users sign away many rights to privacy when they agree to post on the site. Last week, millions of people were alerted that their images, stripped from their “personal” page, were used by Facebook to shill various commercial products. Small financial settlements were offered for this incursion into privacy.

Millions of us have chosen to use Facebook and other social media to publicly post information about our private lives. Like Diane O’Meara, we do so at our own peril.