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What if a Facebook 'friend' is arrested?

It happens more often than you might think. You open your favorite social networking site, Facebook, where you’ve been invited to several upcoming events. One of these is a seminar to which you’ve been looking forward. More and more people use social media to network and coordinate these types of events. Your smartphone has an application to integrate the site’s events in your calendar.

This morning you see an update to the seminar. One of the sessions has been canceled. You’ve traded messages and “wall posts” with the instructor; you’ve “liked” his status updates; you’ve sent or received requests to and from him in some insipid online game that perhaps you both play. You click on the status update, disappointed that you won’t finally be meeting that instructor this summer.

That’s when you find out he’s been arrested for possessing child pornography.

The nature of the crime isn’t the issue; it’s the accusation we must consider. Whether kiddie porn, assault, domestic violence, driving while intoxicated, or some other reprehensible sin, the charge of a crime leveled at someone you know demands an immediate moral and public response from you. To do otherwise is not simply weakness; it represents a lack of character.

Social media and the immediacy of the online world have changed the nature of “friendship” and even of social acquaintance. Where once the people you communicated with regularly were close family and friends, all of whom you knew “in real life,” it is now possible to develop a long list of “friends” whom you don’t really know. Especially if you use your social media sites to network, not with actual friends, but with like-minded individuals, you may have as contacts and online associates a great number of people who are little more to you than names on a screen.

Many of us now have friends to whom we’ve only spoken on the phone, or through video chat utilities like Skype or PalTalk. These virtual friends – what once we might have called “pen pals” – become as real to us as many of our true acquaintances. In part, this is because much of our interaction with our “real” friends also comes in this electronic, technologically facilitated form.

We text-message and call our local friends far more often than we get together with them. We stay in touch with our family members on Facebook, not by visiting them. We trade smartphone pictures through Twitter and other trading and sharing sites, not in person as Polaroids, slide shows, or photo albums. Why, then, would our online contacts not slowly assume as much prominence in our minds?

As those lines blur, so do the division between areas of your real and online lives. Daniel Gulati, in Harvard Business Review, explains that your “friends” are increasingly your customers if you use social media for business networking. “We should be wary of the social swap,” he writes, “no matter what side of the transaction we’re on. As the business, you’ll need to wisely curate content by aligning your posts and tweets with audience interest. … Sadly, social media platforms are reducing our previously open and uncensored friendships to an unending series of calculated transactions.”

It is these “calculated transactions,” the conscious decisions we make regarding the online company we keep, that concerns us here. Specifically, you can’t possibly know everything (or even many things) about large numbers of the people you may count as your friends online. When we do learn something bad about them, however, we must choose whether to support or abandon them.

There is no shortage of celebrity examples. People like O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson still have their supporters. Simpson and Blake are most famous now for not being convicted of murder. Technically, they are innocent, an assumption they were supposed to have enjoyed from the moment they were each arrested. Would you allow O.J. Simpson – who, after his trial, would go on to write the disturbing confessional, “If I Did It” – to date your daughter? No? Then would you rather she have dinner with Blake instead?

Jackson has even more apologists, owing to the popularity of his music and the peculiar sensibilities of Hollywood contemporaries. While he was never convicted of molestation outright, the fact remains that Michael Jackson was a creepy weirdo whose relationships with children (his own and others) were disturbing and strange. There was something off, something profoundly wrong with him. He was strange enough, in fact, that a hundred years ago a pitchfork- and torch-wielding mob would have marched on the Neverland Ranch out of some sense of community preservation, the urge to remove from their midst a monster presenting an obvious threat. Would you have let Michael Jackson babysit your preteen son? Why not?

The people who inhabit your online social and business lives aren’t celebrities, but the same concepts apply. When one of them is accused of a crime, of some unacceptable public conduct, he or she rightly enjoys the assumption of innocence in our legal system. Socially and morally, however, there is another reality in play: The vast majority of people charged with crimes are, in fact, guilty of them. There are always exceptions; every trial presents the possibility of acquittal. Certainly the defendants in the Duke rape case can tell us how difficult it is to be wrongly accused by a liar.

Still, the only acceptable, moral response to news that someone in your online social circle has been accused of a serious crime is immediate and strong condemnation. Pending conviction, you must make it clear that you do not support such behavior and cannot abide such qualities in your online friends. Let the system work, yes; let the evidence speak, certainly. But do not hide behind cowardly legalism when strong moral conviction is demanded.

Refusing to condemn is tacit support for the accused. Consider whom you are protecting, directly or by default. You will be judged by the company you keep, on the Internet as in real life … and perhaps even more readily.