After a college resource company created a legion of phony Class of 2013 Facebook groups–a scheme that could have harvested personal information from thousands of students–some higher-education officials say it might be time for colleges to step in and manage online social-networking sites for their campuses themselves.
"It was a wakeup call for many that social media is no longer a ‘maybe’ and that schools need to actively pursue a social media presence," said Brad J. Ward, coordinator for electronic communications at Butler University in Indianapolis and a blogger who first exposed the scheme Dec. 18, later dubbed "FacebookGate" in the blogosphere.
Ward noticed that a student named Patrick Kelly from Plano High School started a Facebook group for members of Butler University’s Class of 2013, or this year’s college freshmen. Ward checked the university’s database and did not find Kelly enrolled. He checked further and found hundreds of Facebook groups for institutions nationwide, created by a handful of supposed students–including Kelly.
The group administrators were traced to a Pittsburgh-based company called College Prowler, which markets student-composed guidebooks about colleges. Luke Skurman, the company’s president and CEO, responded in a post on Ward’s blog–SquaredPeg.com–admitting College Prowler was involved.
"The original purpose was to use these groups as a way to inform students that they can access a free guide about their new college on our site," Skurman wrote on SquaredPeg.com. "No employee or anyone else associated with College Prowler has used these groups to send out messages or wall posts."
In an eMail statement, Skurman said College Prowler did not aim to trick college students into joining online groups that could harvest personal information for marketing purposes.
"In creating the groups some methodologies were used that created a lack of transparency surrounding who was running the groups, most of this was done without the knowledge of College Prowler management," Skurman said. "When the issues were discovered we took full responsibility for any wrongdoing and disassociated ourselves from the groups altogether. It is important to note that College Prowler never sent any messages to the students and never posed as university officials. Our only intention was to engage the students and promote a free college guide for incoming freshmen."
Ward and other officials from colleges across the U.S. said the fake Class of 2013 pages should spur colleges to be more proactive about popular social-networking sites like Facebook.
"I think the best defense is to actually have an offense, meaning that most schools aren’t doing anything with social media, and simply having a presence will help students distinguish between legit and fake," Ward said.
During a webinar on FacebookGate that Ward hosted on Dec. 22, Skurman suggested that students should create private online groups that could be validated by campus faculty who scan the internet for forums that use the school’s name.
"At that point, you can create student administrators and such," Skurman said.
"We don’t want it to ever happen again for anybody," he added.
Tim Nekritz, an associate director of public affairs at the State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego campus, said he was alarmed by how many phony Facebook sites had been created by a only a few pretend students last month.
Nektritz, like many in higher education, believes student-administered social networking sites are preferable to sites managed by the college. But FacebookGate will change that perception, he said.
"If it’s started by students, it is more organic," Nektritz said. "But you also want to make sure they’re getting accurate information. You don’t want them used by someone as part of a marketing scheme. … We have to watch out for our students."
Scott Testa, a marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University, said students forming and managing a college Facebook group leads to productive, helpful online exchanges, but university officials should be more conscious of fake sites that could misrepresent the campus and steal students’ identity.
"From a marketing perspective, [schools] should probably be [starting social-networking sites] anyway," said Testa, who writes a marketing and business blog called ScottTesta.com. "But I think ultimately, if they’re organically driven, there’s something to be said for that."
Testa said he has seen other data-collecting schemes online, but the number of universities involved in last month’s controversy was surprising.
"I can’t recall a college marketing scheme as full-blown and wide-ranging as this one," he said. "This was pretty daring."
Less than a month after Butler University students were told about the faux Facebook web pages, Ward said the school has promoted its official Class of 2013 Facebook site–and the effort has paid off. The Class of 2013 page had more members and wall posts in December than the Class of 2012 Facebook page had in April 2008, he said.
"We’re seeing great conversation," Ward said.
SUNY Oswego warned students about the fake pages with a prominent post on the school’s official Facebook page. Uncovering false Class of 2013 Facebook pages, Nekritz said, has made students more aware of online groups that have no affiliation with their college or university.
"People felt very betrayed or insulted," he said. "A lot of [students] used the term ‘creepy.’"