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Facebook has announced a number of changes to how active accounts interact with those whose owners have passed away in order to reduce potential trauma and distress.
With so many of us now using social media, there are repercussions when a loved one goes before us. You may be reminded of birthdays and Facebook’s algorithms may connect you to a deceased friend or family member when it comes to events and other activities on the network.
These reminders can be forceful, painful, and can cause severe distress — and are an issue which Facebook has pledged to tackle.
The social media giant said on Tuesday that major changes will now be made through artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and deep learning.
AI is going to be used to manage accounts belonging to those who have passed away and those which have been officially memorialized on request, which allows an account to stay on the network although the account holder has been reported as deceased.
“If an account hasn’t yet been memorialized, we use AI to help keep it from showing up in places that might cause distress, like recommending that person be invited to events or sending a birthday reminder to their friends,” Facebook says. “We’re working to get better and faster at this.”
The issue has been highlighted by one user, Eric Meyer, who in 2014 criticized Facebook’s “Year in Review” computer-generated system after it showed him pictures of his daughter who died in the same year.
“Yes, my year looked like that,” Meyer said. “True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my Little Spark. It was still unkind to remind me so tactlessly, and without any consent on my part.”
In 2015, the tech giant created a tool which allowed users to pick a legacy contact to control their account should they pass away. Changes are also incoming as to who can request for an account to be memorialized, and what can be done with the profile afterward.
“We’ve heard from people that memorializing a profile can feel like a big step that not everyone is immediately ready to take,” the company says. “That’s why it’s so important that those closest to the deceased person can decide when to take that step. Now we are only allowing friends and family members to request to have an account memorialized.”
Facebook has also chosen to create a new “tributes” section for memorialized accounts and additional controls to cater for the 30 million visits to memorialized accounts each month.
Those left behind after a connection dies will now see a new tab to pose stories, images, and more without touching the user’s original timeline.
In addition, legacy contacts will be able to moderate post sharing, edit content, and remove tags as they see fit.
Children under 18 are a more complex issue. Facebook recently lost a three-year battle in Germany and was ordered to give the parents of a 15-year-old girl killed by a train in 2012 access to her account under inheritance laws in the country, in which the account was considered in the same manner as a private diary.
In order to prevent such a battle happening again, Facebook will now consider parental requests to become a legacy contact of their deceased child.
Attempts to control and limit what may be forceful reminders of who Facebook users have lost are necessary and can make what is always a difficult process marginally easier to cope with.
In related news, Facebook is also using AI to tackle existing content-sharing problems on the network relating to those who have become victims of revenge porn; the inappropriate sharing of content and images without consent.
Back in March, the company said that new algorithms and systems will be used to proactively detect nude and near-nude images and proactively prevent them from being uploaded or shared.
(Web Desk) – Within half a century, it’s possible that Facebook could be overrun by the dead, with more deceased users making up the world’s largest social network than living, active people, a new study suggests.
This provocative projection comes from a pair of researchers at the University of Oxford, who ran the numbers on Facebook’s massive audience to make a broader point – not about Facebook specifically, but about how society deals (or doesn’t deal) with digital remains.
Social media is not a new thing any more. In recent years, there’s been growing concern over what really happens to your social media accounts when you die.
But while some of us (and our families) are taking steps to reclaim or cancel the accounts of deceased people’s social media, the issue as a whole remains under-explored, say researchers Carl Öhman and David Watson from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII).
“Never before in history has such a vast archive of human behaviour and culture been assembled in one place,” says Watson.
“Controlling this archive will, in a sense, be to control our history.”
The researchers claim that up until now, only very few studies have looked at the macroscopic and quantitative aspects of online death.
To illustrate the massive extent of what they’re talking about, we need to consider how big something like Facebook really is.
Right now, the social network has in excess of 2.3 billion monthly active users. Of course, their actual user count is even bigger than that, since many people who are on Facebook will not use the service every month.
Sadly, the reason for that – at least some of the time – is because millions of Facebook’s users are already dead.
Estimates suggest about 30 millionFacebook users died in the first eight years of its existence, such is the size of the site.
In their new study, Ohman and Watson wanted to extrapolate from these kinds of numbers, to show we’re really only scratching the surface of the digital death dilemma.
The web comic xkcd looked at this grave territory years ago, but the new research uses updated mortality data sourced from the United Nations, along with Facebook’s Audience Insights information.
In new calculations, the researchers looked at two scenarios: Scenario A, which examines what would happen if no new users joined Facebook from 2019 on, and Scenario B, which assumes that Facebook continues to grow at the current rate of 13 percent growth globally, each year.
In Scenario A, 1.4 billion users would die by 2100, with the rate of deaths growing steadily and peaking in the year 2077 at over 29 million deaths.
“Note that under these conservative assumptions, the dead will in fact overtake the living on Facebook in about 50 years,” the researchers write in their paper.
However, Scenario A is quite unlikely, the team acknowledges, since there’s no evidence to suggest Facebook will stop adding new users to the service immediately.
Instead, Scenario B’s continued growth (until saturation) projection suggests Facebook could potentially thrive far into the distant future – until the mass populace of Facebook’s dead users catches up with the site’s living members.
“A continuous growth rate of 13 percent per year increases the expected number of dead profiles on Facebook by a factor of 3.5, for a total sum of 4.9 billion,” the researchers write.
“Unlike Scenario A, the dead profiles do not show any signs of exceeding the living within this century. However, the proportion is still substantial, and the dead are likely to reach parity with the living in the first decades of the 22nd century.”
Of course, as bizarre and provocative as all these projections are, the broader point is we need to start thinking about these kinds of long-term trends that deal with people’s personal information and online identities, because the researchers say theirs is the first step toward “empirically exploring the macroscopic and quantitative aspects of death on social media”.
“On a societal level, we have just begun asking these questions and we have a long way to go,” Öhman says.
“The management of our digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social media, since all of us will one day pass away and leave our data behind.”
Earlier this year they were given hope when the coroner in Molly’s inquest took the unusual step of ordering the police to examine the devices. Officers are still working to see what can be retrieved.
Ian said: “There is no question that what she found online deepened her depression and hastened her demise.
“She died without a will, she was 14 and everything else quite naturally returns to us as her parents. So should her data.
“It would be lovely to have access to the clips and photos and to be able to hear her voice again, see messages and understand a bit more about her life.
“On another level there may be stuff on those electronic devices that throw a new light on all of this.”
Ian, a TV director and producer from Harrow, North West London, said despite getting all of Molly’s possessions, her digital data has been kept out of reach.
We’d love to hear her voice. And it might shed light on all this.Ian Russell
He has called on the next government to give parents legal rights to their children’s devices and online accounts.
Ian said: “As a family we have had to find ways to move on and get closure and it has probably delayed that. I don’t think any family should have to go through that.”
The social media giant, which launched in 2004, has around 2.27billion members, with almost 1.4billion expected to die before 2100.
Why you need a digital will
But only 25 per cent of Facebook users say they have decided what they want to happen to their page when they die.
You can plan for what happens to your account by setting a legacy in the settings section of Facebook. The company can then manage aspects of your page, such as friend requests and profile pictures.
Once someone’s death is reported to Facebook, the page automatically becomes “memorialised”, meaning the account is secured then prevented from coming up in notifications or friend suggestions.
Immediate family members can also request a loved one’s account is removed.
In the UK, Facebook will never knowingly let anyone log in to a dead person’s account. The same applies to Instagram.
There has been a surge in the number of people making digital wills, after a rise in legal cases concerning legacies of dead users.
Stockport-based solicitors Gorvins said it had seen an increase in digital legacies cases. Assets have included family photographs and downloads of films, music and TV. Even posts made to Facebook and Instagram have been subject to disputes by family members.
Michael Smoult, of Gorvins, said: “Many people don’t think about making a will until factors in their life change.
“The last thing on someone’s mind at a time of accident, injury or serious illness is who is going to be keeper of the Facebook account.
“But those accounts often contain treasured pictures, which can be a source of immense comfort.
“It’s one area of bequests that many people still overlook and it’s a potentially combustible state of affairs.”
By 2070 the number of dead users’ profiles could pass the living, according to an Oxford University study.
Experts have warned we are on course for a digital legacy catastrophe unless social media firms make people more aware of what happens to their online life once they die.
Mum Lisa Bowie, 54, pleaded with Facebook to reactivate her teenage son Mitchell’s account shortly after he died in 2016.
The total lack of compassion from Facebook has been awful.Lisa Bowie
But the company said it was unable to allow her access because he had not given her permission before his death.
She told The Sun on Sunday: “I know there is something more behind Mitchell’s suicide and the information is on Facebook. But Facebook hasn’t helped me, it has done the opposite.
“I’m absolutely disgusted. Parents should be able to access their children’s account after their death.
“We need to get some sort of understanding of why our child has done it, what messages they’ve sent, to see what sites they have been on and if they have been taunted by anyone or bullied into it.
“The lack of compassion from Facebook has been awful.”
Lisa, from Redcar, North Yorks, said Mitchell began talking to the catfish, who called herself Emily, in 2014, when he was 16.
She said that after a year of talking to Emily, Mitchell became withdrawn and did not leave the house. Lisa said Emily would call him constantly and if he did not answer she would get angry.
The day before he died on July 31, 2016, phone records showed she called him for one minute and 15 seconds but Lisa has no idea what she said.
Police tracked down the woman and said they were satisfied she and Mitchell were in a relationship.
But Lisa is certain his Facebook may hold more clues. The mum of five said: “Mitchell kept deactivating his Facebook account and going back on, probably because of this up-and-down relationship with this fake account.
“He had deactivated it before he died but we knew Facebook could reactivate it as he’d done it many times before. We wanted to get into Facebook to see what messages there were.
“His friends tried to access his account but we needed to know the security question and I couldn’t think of what it would be. Facebook told me it was unable to help because his account had been deactivated.
“Surely there must be a way for parents to find these things out after a child’s death?”
Angie Hart, 51, was blocked from her 15-year-old daughter Katie Gammon’s Facebook.
Katie died in August 2015 after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. But in her final moments, Katie gave her mum her Facebook password so she could access her accounts.
Angie spent hours scrolling through messages from friends and family, which helped with the grieving process.
Yet four weeks after Katie’s death, Angie was blocked from using her Facebook and no amount of pleading emails helped.
Angie, a housekeeper from Barnstaple, Devon, said: “I have been blocked and ignored by Facebook since 2015.
“I loved reading her messages and the kind words of encouragement she’d pass on to her other friends with the awful genetic condition.
“Facebook has no idea how devastating it is to be blocked and ignored when you’ve lost a child. It was her dying wish we continue to use her Facebook.”
If you lose someone, you want to hold on to words from their last days.Lorin LaFave
Breck’s mum Lorin LaFave, 51, of Caterham, Surrey, said she was refused access to her son’s Facebook page.
She said: “I would have loved to have had access to Breck’s account. When you lose someone you want to hold on to any words which will give you insight into their personality or last days.
“I haven’t been able to get access to Breck’s social media accounts because Facebook told me I didn’t have his passwords. It was heartbreaking.”
Online firms’ shutdowns
By Daniel Jones, Consumer Editor
SOCIAL media sites have different rules, with Facebook the only site where users can put things in place before they die.
Users over 18 must pick a “legacy” contact who can post a final message on a profile before it is turned into a “memorial” account.
These accounts have “Remembering” added to the name. There is a new “Tributes” section where people can reminisce about the person. The legacy contact can moderate these and edit who can post or see posts.
Latest rules allow parents who have lost children under 18 to request being a legacy contact. Under-18s cannot specify one.
Users can also tell Facebook they want their account deleted when they die.
Instagram has no option to gain access. But it does memorialise accounts in a similar way. Friends and relatives must email with proof of death. Posts of a dead user stay on the site and can be seen by anyone shared with.
Twitter will deactivate an account if a close family member or someone authorised to act on behalf of their estate gets in contact. They can also request it is deleted. But Twitter will never give access to an account.
The other option is to keep a document. This could be in a pad or on a family computer or tablet, with log-ins and passwords.
Last night a Facebook spokeswoman said: “We do not allow someone to log into another person’s account, even after they have died, in order to protect the security and privacy of the deceased person’s information.
“We understand there could be a valid legal reason to access the account and in those instances we work closely with the relevant authorities.”
Molly Russell’s dad says social media contributed towards his daughters death on This Morning
Esther Earl never meant to tweet after she died. On 25 August 2010, the 16-year-old internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following online, where she posted about her love of Harry Potter, and her illness. Then, on 18 February 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message on her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.
“It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts,” she wrote, adding an emoji of a smiling face in sunglasses. Her mother, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me Esther’s online friends were “freaked out” by the tweet.
“I’d say they found her tweet jarring because it was unexpected,” she says. Earl doesn’t know which service her daughter used to schedule the tweet a year in advance, but believes it was intended for herself, not for loved ones after her death. “She hoped she would receive her own messages … [it showed] her hopes and longings to still be living, to hold on to life.”
Although Esther did not intend her tweet to be a posthumous message for her family, a host of services now encourage people to plan their online afterlives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are lots of apps for that! Replika and Eternime are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your speech for loved ones after you die; GoneNotGone enables you to send emails from the grave; and DeadSocial’s “goodbye tool” allows you to “tell your friends and family that you have died”. In season two, episode one of Black Mirror, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence – what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy is nearing reality.
But although Charlie Brooker portrayed the digital afterlife as something twisted, in reality online legacies can be comforting for the bereaved. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send emails to herself, stating that her parents should read them if she died. Three months after Esther’s death, her mother received one of these emails. “They were seismically powerful,” she says. “That letter made us weep, but also brought us great comfort – I think because of its intentionality, the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she hoped to become.”
Because of the power of Esther’s messages, Earl knows that if she were dying, she would also schedule emails for her husband and children. “I think I would be very clear about how many messages I had written and when to expect them,” she adds, noting they could cause anxiety for relatives and friends otherwise.
Yet while the terminally ill ponder their digital legacies, the majority of us do not. In November 2018, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to remain online after they die, yet it is estimated that by 2100, there could be 4.9bn dead users on Facebook alone. Planning your digital death is not really about scheduling status updates for loved ones or building an AI avatar. In practice, it is a series of unglamorous decisions about deleting your Facebook, Twitter and Netflix accounts; protecting your email against hackers; bestowing your music library to your friends; allowing your family to download photos from your cloud; and ensuring that your online secrets remain hidden in their digital alcoves.
“We should think really carefully about anything we’re entrusting or storing on any digital platform,” says Dr Elaine Kasket, a psychologist and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. “If our digital stuff were like our material stuff, we would all look like extreme hoarders.” Kasket says it is naive to assume that our online lives die with us. In practice, your hoard of digital data can cause endless complications for loved ones, particularly when they don’t have access to your passwords.
“I cursed my father every step of the way,” says Richard, a 34-year-old engineer from Ontario who was made executor of his father’s estate four years ago. Although Richard’s father left him a list of passwords, not one remained valid by the time of his death. Richard couldn’t access his father’s online government accounts, his email (to inform his contacts about the funeral), or even log on to his computer. For privacy reasons, Microsoft refused to help Richard access his father’s computer. “Because of that experience I will never call Microsoft again,” he says.
Our devices capture so much stuff, we don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here
Compare this with the experience of Jan-Ole Lincke, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical worker from Hamburg whose father left up-to-date passwords behind on a sheet of paper when he died two years ago. “Getting access was thankfully very easy,” says Lincke, who was able to download pictures from his father’s Google profile, shut down his email to prevent hacking, and delete credit card details from his Amazon account. “It definitely made me think about my own [digital legacy],” says Lincke, who has now written his passwords down.
Yet despite growing awareness about the data we leave behind, very few of us are doing anything about it. In 2013, a Brighton-based company called Cirrus Legacy made headlines after it began allowing people to securely leave behind passwords for a nominated loved one. Yet the Cirrus website is now defunct, and the Guardian was unable to reach its founder for comment. Clarkson Wright & Jakes Solicitors, a Kent-based law firm that offered the Cirrus service to its clients, says the option was never popular.
“We’ve been aware for quite a period now that the big issue for the next generation is digital footprints,” says Jeremy Wilson, head of the wills and estates team at CWJ. “Cirrus made sense and ticked a lot of boxes but, to be honest, not one client has taken us up on it.”
Wilson also notes that people don’t know about the laws surrounding digital assets such as the music, movies and games they have downloaded. While many of us assume we own our iTunes library or collection of PlayStation games, in fact, most digital downloads are only licensed to us, and this licence ends when we die.
What we want to do and what the law allows us to do with our digital legacy can therefore be very different things. Yet at present it is not the law that dominates our decisions about digital death. “Regulation is always really slow to keep up with technology,” says Kasket. “That means that platforms and corporations like Facebook end up writing the rules.”
In 2012, a 15-year-old German girl died after being hit by a subway train in Berlin. Although the girl had given her parents her online passwords, they were unable to access her Facebook account because it had been “memorialised” by the social network. Since October 2009, Facebook has allowed profiles to be transformed into “memorial pages” that exist in perpetuity. No one can then log into the account or update it, and it remains frozen as a place for loved ones to share their grief.
The girl’s parents sued Facebook for access to her account – they hoped to use it to determine whether her death was suicide. They originally lost the case, although a German court later granted the parents permission to get into her account, six years after her death.
“I find it concerning that any big tech company that hasn’t really shown itself to be the most honest, transparent or ethical organisation is writing the rulebook for how we should grieve, and making moral judgments about who should or shouldn’t have access to sensitive personal data,” says Kasket. The author is concerned with how Facebook uses the data of the dead for profit, arguing that living users keep their Facebook accounts because they don’t want to be “locked out of the cemetery” and lose access to relatives’ memorialised pages. As a psychologist, she is also concerned that Facebook is dictating our grief.
“Facebook created memorial profiles to prevent what they called ‘pain points’, like getting birthday reminders for a deceased person,” she says. “But one of the mothers I spoke to for my book was upset when her daughter’s profile was memorialised and she stopped getting these reminders. She was like, ‘This is my daughter, I gave birth to her, it’s still her birthday’.”
While Facebook users now have the option to appoint a “legacy contact” who can manage or delete their profile after death, Kasket is concerned that there are very few personalisation options when it comes to things like birthday reminders, or whether strangers can post on your wall. “The individuality and the idiosyncrasy of grief will flummox Facebook every time in its attempts to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.
Matthew Helm, a 27-year-old technical analyst from Minnesota, says his mother’s Facebook profile compounded his grief after she died four years ago. “The first year was the most difficult,” says Helm, who felt some relatives posted about their grief on his mother’s wall in order to get attention. “In the beginning I definitely wished I could just wipe it all.” Helm hoped to delete the profile but was unable to access his mother’s account. He did not ask the tech giant to delete the profile because he didn’t want to give it his mother’s death certificate.
Conversely, Stephanie Nimmo, a 50-year-old writer from Wimbledon, embraced the chance to become her husband’s legacy contact after he died of bowel cancer in December 2015. “My husband and I shared a lot of information on Facebook. It almost became a bit of an online diary,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose that.” She is pleased people continue to post on her husband’s wall, and enjoys tagging him in posts about their children’s achievements. “I’m not being maudlin or creating a shrine, just acknowledging that their dad lived and he played a role in their lives,” she explains.
Nimmo is now passionate about encouraging people to plan their digital legacies. Her husband also left her passwords for his Reddit, Twitter, Google and online banking accounts. He also deleted Facebook messages he didn’t want his wife to see. “Even in a marriage there are certain things you wouldn’t want your other half to see because it’s private,” says Nimmo. “It worries me a little that if something happened to me, there are things I wouldn’t want my kids to see.”
When it comes to the choice between allowing relatives access to your accounts or letting a social media corporation use your data indefinitely after your death, privacy is a fundamental issue. Although the former makes us sweat, the latter is arguably more dystopian. Dr Edinja Harbinja is a law lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, who argues that we should all legally be entitled to postmortem privacy.
If we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us
“The deceased should have the right to control what happens to their personal data and online identities when they die,” she says, explaining that the Data Protection Act 2018 defines “personal data” as relating only to living people. Harbinja says this is problematic because rules such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation don’t apply to the dead, and because there are no provisions that allow us to pass on our online data in wills. “There can be many issues because we don’t know what would happen if someone is a legacy contact on Facebook, but the next of kin want access.” For example, if you decide you want your friend to delete your Facebook pictures after you die, your husband could legally challenge this. “There could be potential court cases.”
Kasket says people “don’t realise how much preparation they need to do in order to make plans that are actually able to be carried out”. It is clear that if we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us. “What one person craves is what another person is horrified about,” says Kasket.
How close are we to a Black Mirror-style digital afterlife?
Esther Earl continued to tweet for another year after her death. Automated posts from the music website Last.fm updated her followers about the music she enjoyed. There is no way to predict the problems we will leave online when we die; Lori Earl would never have thought of revoking Last.fm’s permissions to post on her daughter’s page before she died. “We would have turned off the posts if we had been able to,” she says.
Kasket says “the fundamental message” is to think about how much you store digitally. “Our devices, without us even having to try, capture so much stuff,” she says. “We don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here any more.”
Facebook gets a bad rap a lot of the time, but it is good for some things. These include: keeping on top of your group chat with 13 former school friends who now live on different corners of the earth, watching funny cat videos, or providing a helpful log of all of your worst haircuts and outfits over the years in an array of embarrassing photo albums.
It has become something far less mundane for those of us who have lost loved ones and are left to deal with their digital legacy, which can bring both comfort and distress. Yesterday, Facebook announced it would harness artificial intelligence to halt what it admitted had been intrusions into users’ grief: from suggestions they invite dead friends…