OPINION: Inability to separate fantasy from reality

To say it has been a bad month for the image of ­social networking sites is as big an understatement as rem­arking that Prince Harry likes a drink.

First a sassy-looking young American student is accused of a grotesque murder that, according to plausible rep­orts, she foretold in a series of lurid written and pictorial fantasies posted on her Facebook site.

Then a deranged but, to the outside world, entirely normal Finnish teenager used YouTube to post the chillingly choreographed blueprint for the school massacre that he subsequently ­enacted in real life, gunning down and killing eight people.

On one chilling level, both the horrific slaying in Italy of student Meredith Kercher and the Finnish school massacre are perfectly tail­ored stories for the digital media age. They deliver copy and pictures on a multi-platform, interactive basis. TV and newspapers reproduce words and pictures from the sites. Downloads of ‘Foxy Knoxy’ and her benighted friends are available on screen, handhelds and ­mobile phones, as are images of the Finnish killer complete with gun and T-shirt with the slogan ‘Humanity Is Overrated’.

The websites are cross-referenced and credited by conventional media for use of their images. Newspaper websites create links, driving more traffic to the networking sites. The words Facebook and You­Tube are part of the news agenda and are placed ever more firmly into the vernac­ular. New and old media interact and sales and traffic soar.

Yet, underlying both stories is the inescapable fact that an increasing number of people are choosing to live online fantasy lives parallel to their real lives. Disturbingly, the suspicion grows that, armed with the facility offered by networking sites to create me-centric personas, a growing number of site users are unable to separate the fantasy from the reality. It seems at least feasible that both the Kercher murder and the Finnish massacre were attributable to ­individuals unable to separate the virtual from the real. If, as seems equally argu­able, the fatal confusion was driven by the internet revolution that spawned social networking as a way of life, then the PROs handling the cherished ­accounts are faced with a major new challenge.

Conventional media, suspicious of the commercial gains being made by the new media, will inevitably begin campaigning for greater regulation. ­Social networking, they will argue, must properly embrace basic social responsibility. For Facebook to become part of the vernacular is commercially des­irable. But less so if the headline tag is ‘Facebook killers’. Community is the buzz­word of the sites. But if a tiny part of that community is perceived as being outside the law, the PR challenges will multiply.  

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

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