Haunted by your dead friends: will Facebook ever let us mourn in peace?

The social media giant can plan ahead for your death, but not the impact it will have on your friends. 

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I am, and always have been, an apathetic Facebook user. I check it a couple of times a week, largely to like wholesome posts from my extended family, and occasionally use it to announce moves, jobs, or articles I’ve written that I am particularly proud of. Facebook took note and started sending me notifications to tempt me to return. Most of these messages were relatively dull, predominantly alerts about friends posting in long-forgotten groups, and notifications about events happening in my area. But, one day, an especially not-dull message popped up on my screen:

“Sarah, Ian hasn’t heard from you in awhile. Why don’t you say hello?”

I was taken aback. Surely, surely, Facebook knew. I stared at the notification, flabbergasted and shocked, and dumbfoundedly responded to the message in my head. “Why haven’t I gotten in touch with Ian? Because, Facebook, he’s dead.”

That’s right – Facebook had gone out of its way to encourage me to reconnect with one of my good friends despite his recent, tragic death. The experience was jarring, heartbreaking, and bizarre. But it also brings to light a problem Facebook has wrestled with for its entire existence. It has addressed what will happen to our data after we die, but it’s still failing to figure out how to keep the accounts of dead friends from unintentionally tormenting their grieving friends and family.

For its still-living users, Facebook has a few options regarding their profiles after their death. You can nominate a “legacy contact” to access to all of your information. There are also a number of third party applications that are meant to spruce up your profile in the case of your death, such as “If I Die”, which allows you to record video messages to be published publicly and privately to specific people after your passing. Other applications auto-post a message on your behalf or auto-send private messages if you have something specific you want to say.

Yet if Facebook has put plenty of provisions in place to ensure your digital afterlife is how you want it, there is less in place to look after those who will still be very much alive: your Facebook friends.

One particularly horrifying story was reported by Canadian publication CityNews in April 2017. Toronto resident Meagan Kelly began receiving sexually explicit messages from a friend on Facebook – a friend who had died four years previously. Luckily, Kelly realised she was not being haunted, but that the account had been hacked, and reported the offensive messages to Facebook. She expected an empathetic, speedy reply. However, rather than a message of sympathy, Facebook reportedly told her to simply block and delete the account, something Kelly was not prepared to do.

A basic Twitter search will show you that this is far from an isolated incident. You’ll see stories of terribly-timed friendship anniversaries, depressing notifications encouraging friends to wish a happy birthday to a user who’d recently died, and News Feed updates of dead friends still liking pages. One stand-out tweet came from Barbara Reid, whose son Danny died of leukemia at just shy of 15. Following his death, Barbara and her son Stephen began memorialising Danny a couple of times a year online by sharing stories and photographs of him.

“Then one day I see this person acting like [she was] me taking care of Danny,” Barbara told me, explaining that the person in question stole not just pictures of Danny, but pictures of Barbara as well, to build a whole network of fake accounts to try to convince the public of her validity.

“She has ‘borrowed’ [Danny’s] story from Facebook,” she went on, “And she did this with several other cancer kid families too.” The woman in question had taken Danny’s information and turned it into a fake fundraising page, where she scammed people out of donations by pretending that her son was Danny and that Danny was still alive and fighting. She was eventually removed and charged for her actions, but only after tormenting a number of cancer-affected families.

For Facebook, though, the problem doesn’t just end with removing these accounts. Part of the problem is that, even when things go awry, people often don’t want to see these accounts disappear. In the case of Meagan Kelly, although she didn’t want to keep receiving creepy spam from her dead friend’s profile, she also didn’t want to permanently remove the well-preserved Facebook memories she shared with her lost friend. Some users described their friend’s profiles as “virtual headstones”, a place to visit and celebrate someone that person’s life. And although Facebook does have a function to memorialise an account, making it more difficult to act like a regular profile, the process is easier said than done. For perhaps understandable reasons, friends or relations of the deceased must fill in a form requiring extensive personal details as well as proof of death. It is hard to imagine many mourners prioritising such paperwork over the more pressing questions of burying their loved one and grieving for them. A person’s account could go weeks, months, or years before being changed from a normal profile to a memorial.

It is not inevitable that Facebook updates from dead friends should cause the kind of reaction I had. Notifications about a dead friend or family member (such as “On This Day” posts or even birthday reminders) are sometimes welcome, as an acknowledgement of that person’s life. But too often, they are mixed in with tastelessly twee Facebook communications that feel like a heartbreaking invasion.

In the case of my friend, thankfully, the gut-wrenching encouragements to get in touch have ceased. However, those who have recently lost someone must learn that, somewhere along the way in the modern grieving process, it is almost inevitable that Facebook will bungle it up.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.