Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Ask.FM; Is It Still The Most Irresponsible Social Platform Out There?


Ask.fm describes itself as an "Ask and Answer" service. You've probably heard of Ask.fm and will understand why I won't be linking to the site directly for your reference. Ask.fm has also been at the center of cyber-bullying controversies for the past 2 to 3 years. Ask.fm has been directly linked to the deaths of 15 year old Joshua Unsworth and 14 year old Hannah Smith, who are just two of a handful of children who have ended their lives early with tangible and proven links to Ask.fm.

Ask.fm was never shut down, even pending police enquiry following the deaths. The headquarters and data holding locations were in Latvia, Northern Europe, where controls on misuse of internet services are much more lax and much more difficult to police. It was also widely documented that existing owners and business-leaders of Ask.fm, Mark and Ilja Terebin, were never particularly bothered by the deaths linked to their "Ask and Answer" service. This excrutiating interview, written by Jack Dickey and featured in Time Online, shows the flagrant disregard the brothers have for the safety and wellbeing of the Ask.fm users. FYI; this article will make you angry. One of the questions Jack asked of the site owners, with one of the less offensive answers if you can believe that, goes as follows:

Do you feel responsible for the bullying on the site?

Ilja: It’s like with the police. You can’t put a policeman in each apartment. But you need to install police that people can call whenever they have an issue. This is our responsibility, to have this available for our users, if they have bullying issues, if they see someone else being bullied. They can press a button, and we can punish whoever sent the bad comment or question.

So, what happens to these bullies as a punishment for misusing the site? Ask.fm have been preaching about the influencers they've brought in to the business. These largely comprise of charities and exec investors. Has anything changed? I signed up for an Ask.fm account to see what measures have been put in place since the speight of teenage suicides a few years ago...

The first thing I noticed was this disclaimer for minors.

As anybody who has ever used the internet ever is aware, these notices exist purely to legally protect the site creators and administrators. There is nothing enforceable about the above statement; no child ever goes to their parent to ask for permission to use a certain website and nor are they required to in order to be able to use the Ask.fm site. In the majority of the cases the parent won't even know the site exists, as is the case in many of the deaths linked to abuse from Ask.fm users.

Creating Your Account


After creating a user account the site encourages you to grant various other social platforms access to your data. Twitter and Facebook are the main connections it asks for access to, and it uses your profile info to tell you how many of your friends are already using Ask.fm. In my case it is 5, but in the case of somebody around the age of 15 it would be a much higher number as a huge majority of the users of Ask.fm are under 18 years old.


Worryingly, the site asks for access to much more information than it actually access needs to. It asks for permission to update your Twitter profile, for example, and to also post tweets for you. You are unable to link your account without granting authorisation to this app and so your private Twitter and Facebook accounts are comprimsed within 10 seconds of signing up to Ask.fm. What practical purpose would require Ask.fm to need to be able to update your personal social media platforms? The answer is none, other than the ability to sell your stats to advertising companies to earn the company more money. The additional access rights are just an additional revenue stream for Ask.fm.


The site also creates you a temp user URL to share with your friends and whoever else might be following you.


Within a minute I was taken to a page of  'suggested questions' which are essentially stock questions that appear on every new profile. You are encouraged to answer these questions and then to wait for the questions that will roll in from your friends and, obviously, enemies. The questions seem pretty harmless. So much so that one would nearly assume that these are typical questions that teenagers ask from one another in an anonymous capacity. I can see a chorus of 14 year children describing "how they would draw happiness" during their lunch break, rather than listening to One Direction and trying to get the Year 13s to buy them cigs.


Once you answer the question it is displayed on your profile page which is public to both registered users and non-registered users of Ask.fm. Seems simple right?


Let's look at the more pressing issue; anonymity and privacy. When I started exploring the privacy settings on my Ask.fm account everything was set to 'Open'. Anonymous questions were allowed and my answers were set to stream which means that they will be discoverable by anybody who decides to peruse the Ask.fm question feeds. You are immediately searchable, discoverable and identifiable by your personal platforms and also by your profile photo. I chose to use a photo of my cat because he's less likely to be bullied by strangers as his BMI is more socially acceptable.


What has changed?


I think the first thing that jumps out to me is that absolutely nothing has changed. Honestly, what has changed? If anything the site has more functionality that it did before the tragic circumstances which sent it spiraling into infamy. You can answer a question by recording a video, simply by granting Ask.fm access to both your camera and your microphone. As a wise old 25 year old (inside joke, sorry), I can immediately see how this would be an awful feature if misused. Sure, Ask.fm can market this as a step forward and it can issue guidelines on using the video functionality in a responsible manner. I think the underlying fact is that children are not known for being responsible. Many of them haven't learned from the error of their ways yet. When I was a child, I learned that if I didn't put my bike in the garage overnight it would not be there in the morning. That was a hard lesson to learn (it was purple and sparkly and everything). The Ask.fm video functionality means that a child will learn a much harsher lesson in a much more public fashion, and once that footage is out there you should assume that it is out there forever and ever until the end of the World. Kids are both stupid and cruel; is this a feature that we should really be freely offering to a very young userbase?

(omg look I'm famous)

There have been no changes made to the safety of the site. People are still able to ask anonymous questions of their peers, questions that are immediately posted on the users profile once answered. Questions like the ones that Izzy Dix was made to suffer at the hands of faceless bullies that have yet to be tracked down more than 2 years after her suicide. In an interesting parody, the "Safety Team" that Ask.fm have implemented have remained strangely faceless since the announcement of a more responsible Ask.fm. The site now talks about "an impressive group of experts with 50 years of combined experience across digital safety advocacy, policy and education". Sorry, who are these people? Why have they chosen to hide their roles within the organization? A search of Linked In provided to be totally fruitless. Do they exist?


It is easy to claim that efforts have been increased when it comes to keeping the site users safe. I could claim that Terry Crews is my personal trainer, Nigella Lawson cooks my dinner and that Beyonce pops round for wine on a Sunday when she's in the area. The fact of the matter is that I would be making blatant false claims, and Ask.fm is doing nothing more than making blatant false claims. The Ask.fm micro-site "Safety Center" (LOL) is essentially a page of links to suicide charities and advice pages for kids who are being bullied on Ask.fm. Why the hell is a site that is so damaging to society and needs this much legal bolstering something that is being allowed to run as a service?



The answer: it's making people money. 

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