What happens to social media accounts of people who die?

At least 1.4 billion people will die before 2100, which implies that the dead could outnumber the living on Facebook by 2070, according to a study based on 2018 user levels by the Oxford Internet Institute of the University of Oxford. iStockphoto

Ever wondered what will happen to all the posts, photos and videos you post, or have posted, on various social media networks, after you die? At least 1.4 billion people will die before 2100, which implies that the dead could outnumber the living on Facebook by 2070, according to a study by Oxford Internet Institute of the University of Oxford, based on 2018 user levels.

Facebook is simply a case in point. “These are issues that nobody’s actually thought of initially, but now we need to think of. And at the end of the day, just like any other public utility or service like a bank account, social media platforms need to take this into consideration and very clearly have a process laid out by which, the next of kin or anyone nominated by the user can come and kill or take care of the account,” said Roopak Saluja, founder and CEO of the 120 Media Collective, a digital marketing company.

On its part, Facebook provides users and their dear ones the option to turn the account of a dead user into a memorialized one, and hand over all control to a trusted person who can look after the account.

Active users can nominate a friend to look after their account from the manage account page on Facebook. The legacy contacts do not get the same control as the original user and can only change profile picture, write a tribute post and respond to friend requests.

In case users don’t want their profile to be memorialized post-death, they can choose to delete their account completely after a death certificate has been shared with Facebook by the legacy contact. A memorialized account can be identified with the word “Remembering” showing up next to the user’s profile name. These accounts won’t show up in public spaces on Facebook such as in friend suggestions or forthcoming birthdays.

Instagram, too, has the option where friends and family of a deceased user can report their death and request memorialization of the account.

Twitter doesn’t have the option to memorialize an account in the event of the death of one its users, but it gives the option to completely deactivate the account after relatives make a request with the documents that confirm death.

However, except for a few social media platforms like these, such provisions are non-existent or are not highlighted enough by most of the other social media platforms. Saluja believes this is the responsibility of the platform owner. He argues that governments should mandate that this is done in the right way. Post-the General Data Protection Regulation, countries like France and Hungary have rules that allow users to establish instructions for the management of their online data post-death.

Another concern of leaving such social media accounts without a proper closure is the risk of being taken over by bad elements to carry out identify theft, financial scams or ad frauds.

“Identity theft after death is becoming increasingly common, and cybercriminals strategically target inactive social media accounts by taking information from newspaper obituaries. As deactivation of the deceased person’s financial accounts can take up to six months, this gives the attacker ample time to carry out financial scams,” cautions Venkat Krishnapur, vice-president of engineering and managing director at McAfeeIndia.

Facebook forums are replete with users reporting fake requests from a friend’s account who is no longer alive, for immediate financial help. Some users reported getting messages with suspicious links from such accounts. One user reported getting ads of sunglasses with friends tagged in it from his deceased brother’s account. Users coming across such incidents can report them to Facebook.

Krishnapur says users should treat their online and social information like any other asset; they should consider declaring this in a will. Considering the fact that an average user has 7.6 social media accounts with sensitive personal information including photographs, intimate messages to friends and in some cases even payment details, using a password manager to access all their accounts when needed can come in handy.

Carl Ohman from Oxford Internet Institute points out in a statement, that on a societal level, people have just begun asking these questions and there is still a long way to go. The management of digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social media.