A local court case decision made late last month, as well as several other recent enforcement polices, could impact the types of information and photos that people, especially college students, post on social networking websites.
On Jan. 26, Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Joseph Lodge ruled that 22-year-old Jessica Binkerd would serve five years and four months in prison for driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter of her passenger, 25-year-old UCSB student Alex Baer. The decision came despite pleas for leniency from the victim’s parents, as well as a recommendation for a shorter jail term from the Santa Barbara County Probation Dept.
Binkerd’s attorney, Steve Balash, said her lengthy sentence came partly as a result of the pictures on her MySpace page.
“Lodge would not move off those pictures. She was made an example of,” Balash said. “Granted, she should be punished, but she wasn’t doing anything wrong in those MySpace pictures – she was just out with her friends.”
As part of the prosecution’s case, District Attorney Kimberly Smith presented the pictures taken from Binkerd’s MySpace profile, posted after the date of the August accident, depicting the defendant partying and drinking with friends. Balash said the pictures were used to show the supposed lack of remorse Binkerd felt.
Binkerd’s case is extreme, but pictures of questionable activities can yield severe consequences for any user of a social networking site, particularly college-aged students.
MySpace, one of the first online networking sites, was established in July of 2003 and has over 100 million registered users, many of whom are college students. Balash said many of the pictures posted on people’s pages seem to misrepresent their priorities and personalities.
“If you have MySpace, you find pictures of people partying hard, and we’ve all done that,” he said. “The problem is that most of these pictures are exaggerated. MySpace is designed as a party thing and you expect your friends to get access, but how can you show intimate pictures to millions of people?”
As for campus enforcement, Anacapa Resident Assistant Krissy Hopper said although she and her colleagues do not go out of their way to get people in trouble, if an RA happens upon a photo of a student engaging in illegal activities in a residence hall it carries the same weight as if they were to catch someone in the act.
“We don’t look for it. We don’t have RA parties where we sit in our rooms and go on Facebook,” Hopper said. “The only time we go on Facebook is if we’ve heard a rumor and want to check its validity. If there was a picture of you doing a beer bong and we could tell it was obviously in your dorm room, we’d have to write you up.”
However, college is not the only time Facebook and MySpace photos could have detrimental effects, Hopper said. Students’ main concern should be the persona they project to potential employers.
“For potential jobs on and off campus, people go on your Facebook and look at your pictures,” Hopper said. “Interviewers use it to their advantage to find out what kind of person you are.”
Emily Brown, a recruiter from GUESS?, Inc., had the same to say. Brown and recruiters from companies all over California are scheduled to flock to UCSB for the Biztech career fair on April 10, and she said trying to impress any of these businesses might make it necessary to hold off on posting some pictures.
“I try to give people a fair chance,” Brown said. “But I’ve heard other recruiters who said their decisions would be impacted. If a hiring manager is curious and checks their MySpace, it could affect their impression of the person. Lots and lots of employers use MySpace and Facebook.”
Meanwhile, the Isla Vista Foot Patrol has also taken advantage of the posted information. Senior Deputy Mark Williams said the police force frequently collects information from networking sites.
“We have a sheriff who routinely checks Facebook and MySpace,” William said. “We’re not looking to find a 20-year-old drinking a Budweiser; we’re looking for the identity of suspects. If we have rough details about a subject, we can find a lot of information like addresses and phone numbers.”
Deputy Williams said a minor crime is difficult to pursue if it didn’t occur in the presence of an officer. Like Hopper, he said the typical MySpace user has more to worry about than a visit from the police.
“People shouldn’t be worried about getting an MIP. For a minor infraction, we’d have to see or witness it personally,” William said. “Individuals should be more concerned about putting up personal information for identity theft and stalking reasons. Anything you put on MySpace is viewable by anybody.”
Balash agreed with this sentiment, and said if he were looking for a new secretary, he would probably look them up on a networking site. The lesson for students, he said, is good common sense.
“Never do anything you wouldn’t want to see printed in a newspaper,” Balash said. “There’s nothing wrong with MySpace, but when you put all these crazy pictures on it’s going to come back to bite you. It certainly can be used against you when you least expect it.”