For several years now, many high school students who are entering university in the fall sign up to Facebook groups created by fellow students for their particular freshman class. So, for example, students who are starting their first year at Brock University this fall can sign up to the “Brock University Class of 2013” Facebook group, named for the year in which they’ll (hopefully) graduate.
Students can use these groups to get to know each other, share information and plan activities before they even set foot on campus in September. Most, if not all, universities in Canada have similar student-run Facebook groups.
But all is not as it seems. There have been several examples so far this year of fraudulent “Class of …” Facebook groups in Canada that purport to represent students but which appear to have no connection to that particular university.
The alarm had already been sounded in the U.S. last December, when blogger Brad Ward warned colleagues that there was something fishy happening on university Facebook groups.
Matthew Melnyk, the electronic outreach liaison officer in Brock’s recruitment and liaison office, discovered such a group pretending to represent Brock students in February. Digging further, he found that this group was linked to another Facebook group called “Grads of 2009 (Canada)” which itself had links to other illegitimate “Class of …” Facebook groups at more than a dozen Canadian universities.
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The critical issue, he told me in an interview last week, is the risk that these fake groups pose to students. Matt did not know what these groups were after, but guessed that they were likely trying to collect personal data for marketing purposes. “I’m assuming it was data mining, but I’m not really sure.”
Matt stumbled upon the fake Facebook group almost by accident. There was a legitimate “Class of 2013” group run by a Brock student, and Matt asked her if he could join as an administrator. He says he just wanted to “kind of be in the background” to answer any questions students might have (Matt is a Brock alumnus).
About a month or so later, he discovered a competing group claiming to be “the official” Brock Class of 2013 group. He was immediately suspicious, because the administrator of this group did not appear to be a Brock student and didn’t list any “friends” or high school information.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Matt messaged this group to suggest that they might want to combine their group with the other existing group. Rather than responding directly, this fake group began to send malicious spam messages to the legitimate Brock group.
Matt asked Facebook to take the group down on the grounds of copyright infringement – the fake Brock Class of 2013 group was using the official Brock University logo. Facebook complied about a week later and shut down the offending account.
In the meantime, Matt traced this fake group back to the above-mentioned “Grads of 2009 (Canada)” group, with its links to various other fake university Facebook groups. Many of these groups had the same administrator name or versions of the same name, so he assumes they were all linked.
Ryan McNutt, the new media officer in the communication and marketing department at Dalhousie University, had a somewhat similar experience at his university, which he recounts in a guest blog post in May on the Academica Group’s web site.
Matt had one last skirmish with the fake Brock Facebook group in May. It reappeared – without the official Brock logo – and was making this wild claim:
“Brock staff (namely Matthew Melnyk) have been trying to get control over brock facebook groups. And when the student creators dont make them admins they file copyright claims to Facebook and get the groups DELETED.”
Brad Ward, who uncovered the fake groups in the U.S., happened to be on the Brock campus that week. Brad, who has contacts at Facebook due to his earlier discoveries, took this information to Facebook and within a couple of days all the fake Canadian groups were shut down. Brad and Matt have also spread the news on Twitter (Twitter users can follow the events using the hash tag “#2013canada”).
The whole series of events is recounted in Matt’s blog and also in a blog post by Melissa Cheater, who did some of the digging around the fake groups (the screen shots reproduced on this page come from Melissa’s blog – thanks Melissa).
The obvious message for universities is that they must keep a close eye on social media. Says Ryan McNutt on his blog post:
As both individuals and organizations get savvier in the social media realm, our responsibility to monitor and protect our identity online is only going to grow. Every university has to make its own decisions as to when to take action, but the use of a school’s identity to mislead prospective students into a marketer’s channel is a serious concern that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Matt at Brock says that he’s not sure if even half of those institutions that were falsely represented even know it was happening. He adds: “there’s probably no way to find out what these people were planning, or what they’re planning next.”