Journalists Ask How to Handle Privacy Issues on Facebook

Last Wednesday, in the final Poynter career chat of 2009, we discussed “How Can I Polish My Online Presence?

People brought up Facebook.

Someone by the username Machiko wrote, “I’m a senior in college and I have now, so many friends and of course comments on Facebook. Should I also consider the comments I leave on others’ walls and photos as public?” Later, Machiko wrote, “so definitely no opinions on anything political … or any news for that matter, via Facebook comments or whatnot?”

A participant named Jake wrote, “This is more about Facebook, but I always hear employers can find photos, posts, etc. even if it’s hidden or private. How true is this? Do employers go around privacy settings to access hidden content?

The best answer came that very day from a good authority — Facebook itself. As we chatted, Facebook’s 350 million users were opening and reacting to a message about changes in privacy settings. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, had previously noted the change in a Dec. 1 Facebook posting.

On the Electronic Frontier Foundation Web site, Kevin Bankston wrote, “These new ‘privacy’ changes are clearly intended to push Facebook users to publicly share even more information than before. Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data.”

In January, Poynter’s Steve Myers wrote about how journalists wrestle with posting profile information that others might consider innocuous. The issue, of course, is how posts and indicators like party affiliation or religion might reflect on a journalist’s employer.

This summer, someone wrote to “Ask the Recruiter” to say that she felt she lost her chance at a TV job when she responded to a friend request from someone at the station.

Whether you friend the wrong people or not, once you cast something onto the Web, it can be impossible to reel it back in. There are sites built entirely of material harvested from Facebook pages. You can guess what gets stolen. How will the owners of lifted content ever get the material taken down? And what is stopping someone from taking a screenshot of your page or copying the text and e-mailing it or reposting it?

A storm of protest has followed the new Facebook privacy rules, of course.

Gawker had some fun, writing, “Facebook controversially forced profile pictures into public and pushed users to share candids with the whole world. So now we’re blessed with pics of the social network’s young CEO shirtless, romantic, clutching a teddy bear, and looking plastered.”

Zuckerberg responded on his Facebook page: “For those wondering, I set most of my content to be open so people could see it. I set some of my content to be more private, but I didn’t see a need to limit visibility of pics with my friends, family or my teddy bear :)”

In all of this lies the answer: Consider anything you post to be permanent and global. Today’s privacy settings may not be tomorrow’s, and anyone who can see your content can share it with the world. The safest way to act is as though you have no privacy guarantee.

Chats return Jan. 6. Colleen Eddy and I will be back with Ellyn Angelotti or Mallary Tenore moderating and participating, at 1 p.m. ET on Wednesdays.

Coming Wednesday: I’ll address a question about parlaying online job-seeking efforts into face-to-face meetings or visits.

If you have a question about careers and networking sites or careers in general, please e-mail it to me. I’ll get back to you soon.

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