Bobbi Millinger realized she should be skeptical of news on Facebook.
“We truly thought that we were being careful about who we were interacting with, given the need for discretion on social media. We were very aware that people can portray themselves however they wish online,” said the central Illinois woman. “We even felt that we had measures in place to protect us from being duped.”
But Bobbi Millinger is a generous soul, a committed Christian, a natural helper. When she saw pictures of impoverished Ugandan children on Facebook, she wasn’t going to keep scrolling. She was going to do something about it.
First, she did some checking. On Facebook, Happy Mbabazi/Heal the World Miracle Community Organization looked legit. She organized like-minded friends and family, accumulated toys and clothing and resources, arranged for shipments to Uganda.
So far, so good.
“In the beginning, we requested and received pictures of the children receiving the gifts that we had sent,” she says. “We had also spoken on the phone with the person in charge several times and felt confident that we were building a relationship with an authentic charity. It all felt very legitimate. We often wonder if the intent of the leader was more honorable in the beginning.”
She says it wasn’t until her family felt vested in the organization that they began to notice red flags. At first, the Millingers reasoned that living in Uganda might emphasize survival, which could lead to the occasional lie or manipulation. Under survival circumstances, the temptation to take advantage of trusting souls with apparently abundant resources might be overwhelming. But as they provided thousands of dollars in goods and cash, the red flags multiplied.
“Over time, the organization’s focus had shifted to simply requesting money from us rather than donations,” she says. “That seemed reasonable at first, with the given explanations. We still felt the call to help, so we did. We were also told that the need for healthy water was crucial because the children were getting so sick from the contaminated water. The organization wanted money to fund a well.”
Yet she became more and more uneasy. When she tried to enlist another charitable organization to help dig the well, she felt resistance. When she filled out forms and applications on behalf of HWMCO with other charities, her help didn’t seem wanted. When she sent five more boxes of activities and items for the children, she got no more photos.
She did a deeper search on Facebook.
“At this point, multiple other profiles of the leader using different aliases were found,” Millinger says. “One of the alias profiles had even used one of my personal pictures as the cover picture!”
On Feb. 22, Bobbi Millinger, saying she could no longer support HWMCO, reluctantly notified friends and family of her findings.
Garbage in/information out
Most people realize there is no guarantee “free” news on social media is reliable information. From providing the data which tweaks election results to teasing your attention towards Angelina Jolie’s favorite travel shoes, Facebook means business. While old-fashioned media are also accused of having an agenda, there is a key difference:
Unlike your daily newspaper, when it comes to tech entities like Facebook, the flow of information is a two-way street.
Paul Gullifor, Henry Means Pindell Endowed Chair in Communication at Bradley University, says many current students seem unaware of the implications. Possibly because they are so young they cannot recall any other media landscape, he has to explain the possible consequences carefully.
“First of all, I tell them with all this social media they are paying an enormous price,” he says. “They’re not used to thinking of their privacy as social currency.”
And second, even if they OK one source to use their data, that doesn’t mean their personal information stops there.
“Everybody can get hacked. Look at our election system. Look at Target. . . .” he argues. “Everything we think is protected, it’s not. It’s not even secure, despite what some of the companies promise.”
At the moment, the $450 billion-a-year behemoth Facebook is the best example. Earlier this year, it was revealed 50 million Facebook users’ data had been provided to the political analyst Cambridge Analytica, which used that information to influence the 2016 U.S. election. As 33-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg began what was touted as an “apology tour,” that number was revised to 87 million. The company lost $90 billion in value in two weeks. Thousands of people limited use or tried to delete their Facebook accounts entirely, not always successfully.
In mid-April, with Zuckerberg preparing to testify before Congress, Facebook admitted “most” of its 2.2 billion members probably have had their personal data scraped by “malicious actors.”
“As Facebook has grown, people everywhere have gotten a powerful new tool to stay connected to the people they love, make their voices heard, and build communities and businesses,” Zuckerberg said in a prepared text. “But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well.”
The company promises reforms, in part to get ahead of strict new privacy laws that take effect in the European Union on May 25. Fines for misuse of personal data could cost Facebook up to $1.6 billion, based on 2017 revenues.
Meanwhile, Bobbi Millinger says her family has learned a lot.
“Facebook and other social media gives a platform that makes deception so much easier,” she says. “It is sad that we have to be so leery of those asking for help. All we can do now is pray that the children did indeed benefit from most of our efforts.”
She is unsure about advising others.
“I do think that in moving forward, we will simply stick to the reputable and established charity organizations that we are involved in,” she concludes. “And of course, the relationships built the old fashioned way, face-to-face.”