As an avid reader of ESPN, I often read the comments. From a fan’s point of view, the comments are a space where fans can voice their pleasures and pains about their teams. Yes, often the comments go far past that as commentators engage all kinds of anti-social behavior, most of which can be classed as trolling, such as misogynistic statements directed at female athletes.
ESPN attempted to address trolling in the past by switching their comments system to one run by Facebook, though I'm not sure whether the switch has caused a qualitative change in the amount of abuse present on the website. However, there is another kind of anti-social behavior – in fact, a criminal behavior – which is very present on the Facebook-powered, ESPN message boards: the recruitment of money mules.
The ads in question look like this:
The scam enlists participants with the promise of pay to help with the laundering of money. In essence, the scammer uses the people who fall for such ads to help transfer money, using their own bank accounts. In exchange, they are allowed to keep a percentage of the funds with the promise that more work will come. As police begin to chase up their leads, they find these conduits, who no longer have the money, but are deemed responsible for the funds that they helped move. Sometimes, though not by any means always, the conduits are unaware that their "work" is illegal.
And, in the event that such websites are not meant to recruit money mules, then they are almost certainly used to recruit bots into a botnet that would in turn facilitate other types of online crime. Either way, there is little doubt that such ads are attempting to start a criminal script.
Accordingly, the prevalence of such ads has led me to wonder, what is the responsibility of Facebook and/or ESPN in preventing them (or any companies that manage and host comments)? It is clear that ESPN wanted to wash its hands from the responsibility associated with its message boards and that Facebook is attempting to situate itself as a provider of “authentic” identity. Moreover, and increasing number of platforms allow its users to sign in using their Facebook account, meaning that in practice, this is what is happening.
That leads us to a few pertinent questions. First, what are the responsibilities that Facebook has to the netizens of the world who rely on it? Second, is it appropriate for companies and individuals to trust Facebook to police these forums? Third, in the event that Facebook fails to police these forums, what are the responsibilities of the sites that use Facebook as their comments platform?
While Facebook does not have the sovereign responsibility to protect the netizens of the world, it does have corporate responsibility to protect its customers: the websites that have implemented it as their comments platform. It is also incumbent on such websites, like ESPN, to demand that Facebook actively engages in strategies that combat such malicious behaviors. If Facebook wants to become the underwriters of authentic identity, they must take active and aggressive steps in ensuring that the identities presented on such public forums are, in fact, authentic.
And while there does seem to be fewer of these malicious ads today than there were before, no attention had been made of them by Facebook or ESPN, who, perhaps, work behind the scenes to get rid of them, these companies should make a better effort in educating users about the dangers they face from such ads. Simply ignoring them, or asking users to make good choices will not affect such criminals’ bottom line since the majority of users since users will often choose convenience and/or perceived opportunity, over best practices.
Finally, it is important to remember that the governance of the internet is not an easy task. As more and more folks become concerned about their own privacy, it is clear that an increasing proportion of users are not happy with government policing. Nonetheless, consumers must demand that the sites they frequent and the platforms they use strive to provide security from malicious attackers. Failure to do so weakens the internet for all.