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Opinion

Society

A Process for Deterring the Spread of
Posting Inappropriate Photos Online

Mizuho Iwaihara
Professor, Graduate School of Information, Production and Systems, Waseda University

The endless posting of inappropriate photos and excessive social sanctions

Photos involving extreme pranks posted on Twitter and other social media have become a problem recently. Various photos of indecent acts can be found on the Internet—people entering refrigerators at convenience stores, climbing on top of patrol cars, licking bottles of soy sauce at conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Even a student from our university was found to have posted photos of himself completely naked. The photos become more than just practical jokes, resulting in the closing of businesses and payment of damages. People don’t seem to foresee the consequences when they publish photos of themselves, even outrageous ones. No matter how often these cases are reported, however, similar incidents continue to occur, making one wonder if people are watching the news at all. Most of the photos that attract attention on the Internet are those that clearly show illegal acts or mischievous behavior. But I hear that there are too many photos of minors smoking and drinking that go unnoticed.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook feature the ability to instantly spread information posted by a single individual. For this to happen, however, users who receive the information must pass it along to other users using features such as like, retweet and #hashtag. Thus, information is not spread widely unless it has a topicality that captures the interest of many users. When the responses all add fuel to the flame, people can get carried away, and their behavior can escalate. Although most of the many people who view the photos ignore them, some identify the original posters from clues like previous posts and expose them. There are even cases where the poster’s identity is recorded on a type of website called a “matome site” (a site where information is collected) within a few hours after the photo is posted. When this happens, it is difficult to undo. No longer limited to youthful indiscretion, the photos can influence posters’ ability to find jobs and haunt them for the rest of their lives. We may argue that damages sustained by businesses due to posters’ mischievous behavior are also getting magnified by the dissemination of the photos on the Internet. The posting of pranks can incur excessive social sanctions.

New encounters matter more than risks?

Connections among Facebook friends and Twitter followers can be represented as structures called graphs with users displayed as nodes and connections as edges. These are often called social graphs since they depict social relationships among people. A 2011 study found that in the Facebook social graph users have99 friends in average, and that the number of users with more friends than the average decreases exponentially as the number of friends increases. In addition, 92 percent of all users are five or less connections apart from each other. Meanwhile, since users can gain an unlimited number of followers on Facebook and Twitter, reports relayed by prominent figures with millions of Facebook and Twitter followers spread like wildfire.

Narrowing down the sharing range for posts from the general public is recommended as a way to prevent them from going viral. On Facebook, the audience for a user’s posts can be narrowed down from the general public to friends, or friends of friends. However, the risk of posts going viral still remains, as friends of friends can amount to tens of thousands of people in social graphs, many of whom the user has never met and does not know. On the other hand, limiting the audience to friends has the disadvantage of preventing one from acquiring new friends.

In a research by our group, when we analyzed the correlation between the number of profile items made accessible to the public by users on Facebook and the number of friends or gender, we found that while men were a bit more active in making their profiles public, the number of a user’s friends had a greater influence than gender as the number of items made public increased. A possible explanation of the data is that users who are active in making many friends are also active in making their own profile public. In addition, a questionnaire was conducted analyzing the relationship between users’ awareness of online risks or motivation to make new friends online, and whether or not their profiles were accessible to friends of friends. As a result, it was found that gender and motivation to make friends had a greater influence than awareness of risk. A possible interpretation of the data is that people disclose personal information to obtain new opportunities, even when they are aware of the risks.

The possibility of regulating the spread of posts through social computing techniques

The power of social media to spread information often becomes excessive. Can the spread of prank photos be regulated to reduce harmful rumors that businesses damaged by prank photos suffer and give the poster an opportunity to stop? Information that should not be publicly circulated includes copyrighted content, illegal drugs, pornography, and bomb scares, and there are ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of these kinds of information. The difficulty with prank photos is the difficulty in automatically determining whether they are inappropriate from the photo alone. The use of social computing (a type of information technology that supports connections among people) to capture trends specific to prank posts at their early stages offers promising prospects. For example, conditions for determination could include a sudden increase in the transmission of posts which is unnatural for the general public, the occurrence of typical keywords for pranks, and profiles of posters and transmitters identifying them as young men, etc. The reporting or flagging of posts by people who view them is another effective indicator, but since this function can be abused, it would be combined with these conditions before a determination was made. Uniform hiding of posts that met the conditions would not be employed due to the possibility of faulty detection and the need to strike a balance with freedom of expression. The frequency or number of times such posts were shown would be reduced, slowing the speed at which they were spread. Moreover, if the people or stores shown in the photos were identified, notices would be sent, and the original posters would be asked if they really intended to disseminate photos like that over a wide range, giving them a chance to reconsider their actions.

Mizuho Iwaihara
Professor, Graduate School of Information, Production and Systems, Waseda University

[Profile]
Professor Iwaihara graduated from the Department of Computer Science and Communication Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Kyushu University in 1988. He obtained an M.Eng. degree in Computer Science and Communication Engineering (1990) followed by a Dr.Eng. degree (1993) from the Graduate School of Engineering, Kyushu University. After serving as an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Information Science and Electrical Engineering, Kyushu University and an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Informatics, Kyoto University, he assumed his current position in 2009. His areas of specialization include data engineering, social informatics, and security and privacy.