Melissa Matson, age 22, doesn’t exist. She was created by a group of management students at the University of Lethbridge.
The students, for a term project, were looking to find out how easy it might be to get someone to accept a fabricated Facebook user as a friend, to highlight the threat that online predators pose to users of social networking sites like Facebook.
“You hear a lot of these warnings about social networking sites,” says Sarah Lajeunesse, a member of the group. “It’s one thing to say how easily people can fall for online predators but it’s another thing to actually show it.”
The students chose 50 people, aged 18 to 27, as their test group and sent them friend requests from the fake Ms. Matson. Within 24 hours of receiving the requests, half of the recipients accepted. Of those who did, a third tried to initiate an online conversation.
The students never had “Ms. Matson” respond to the communication attempts, but Ms. Lajeunesse says that didn’t stop a number of people from actively pursuing contact with her.
By accepting a friend request, Facebook users give their new “friend” access to personal information that isn’t accessible to the general public. “Whenever a person discloses personal information about themselves they leave themselves vulnerable to a number of uncomfortable to dangerous situations,” says Mary Dyck, a professor in the university’s department of education and kinesiology and an expert on cyber-bullying and adolescents’ online communication. “We were taught ‘beware of strangers’ but no one knows who they really are online anymore.”
Both Dr. Dyck and Ms. Lajeunesse say they don’t think social networking sites are able to effectively protect users’ privacy and prevent online predators. Since completing the project, Ms. Lajeunesse and the three other members of her group with a Facebook account have updated their privacy settings, making them more stringent. Ms. Matson’s account was deleted following the project’s completion.