For most Americans, the Newtown tragedy served as a gut-wrenching reminder that life is precious.  The massacre instantly brought communities together, prompting thousands of citizens to publicize condolences and donate to Newtown-related charities.  However, according to three Congress members from Connecticut, many Facebook tribute pages have “become vehicles for harassment, intimidation and possibly financial fraud.”

Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal and Representative Elizabeth Esty recently sent a letter to Facebook, requesting that the company remove a large number of unofficial pages dedicated to Newtown.  The lawmakers indicated that pages “give the appearance that they were created by loved ones in the names of the victims” and often request monetary donations for potentially fictitious charities.  For example, there are over 100 memorial pages using the name or likeness of Victoria Soto, a young teacher who was killed while protecting her first grade students from the Newtown gunman.  The vast majority of these pages were created without the permission of Soto’s family and friends–and many of them contain hateful messages, as well as postings from conspiracy theorists who claim that the shooting was fabricated and that Soto was simply an actress.

The Congress members explained, “Pages providing platforms for people to violate the privacy of families as they grieve, or seek financial gain through soliciting donations under false pretenses, or generating Facebook ‘likes’ for marketing purposes, should not be given quarter in the Facebook community.”  They further noted that these types of pages violate Facebook’s terms of use, which prohibit users from creating accounts for others without their permission, as well as posting content that infringes the rights of others or violates the law.

Facebook responded positively to the lawmakers’ requests–and on February 25th, the company contacted Senator Blumenthal’s office, explaining that it “had already begun removing abusive pages” and will continue to do so.

While Facebook should certainly eliminate Newtown pages that amount to fraud or harassment, what about all of those pages that fall into the gray area “between harassment or appropriation and offensive but allowable commentary on an event or person”?  Is extensive Facebook policing dangerous in this context?  Should family members of victims have any say over who can and cannot make a public website honoring their loved ones?

Julie Latsko

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3 Responses to Profiting from Tragedy: Congress Members Say Enough is Enough

  1. Colton Cline says:

    Awesome post. I fall pretty firmly in the “let Facebook do what it will” camp. Obviously, Facebook, being a private company, has no duty to protect anyone’s First Amendment rights. You are protected from the government in limited situations under the First Amendment, but Facebook doesn’t have to allow you to post anything. This all becomes even more complicated when you look at the “crowd sourced” amateur investigations following the Boston bombings. Sites are going to have to start worrying about their degree of liability when users misidentify a subject and something bad happens.

  2. Mary Fletcher King says:

    I think an equally important question is whether family members of the killers can have a say over who can make a website condemning their loved ones. On Facebook, there are numerous “Adam Lanza Burn in Hell” and “James Holmes Must Burn in Hell” pages. I would think these would fall under Facebook’s harassment policy and should be removed. If Facebook is removing victims’ pages, it should not have a double-standard, and should remove the killers’ pages as well. I’m sure there are family members who are extremely upset by these pages.

  3. Michael Dearington says:

    Great post, Julie! I figured this basest form of fraud was unthinkable until the arrest of Nouel Alba back in December for using Facebook to solicit Newtown-related donations (http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/27/justice/connecticut-newtown-charity-scam). Not only am I still surprised at the continued repugnance, but I also thought fraudsters would have taken Alba’s arrest as a warning.