It seems every other day, there’s another news story about someone getting in trouble over a Facebook post. Some stories may have us shaking our heads and asking, “What were they thinking?” It’s surprisingly easy, however, for a post we assume to be private to get spread far beyond the intended audience. From simple embarrassment to criminal charges, the consequences for a regrettable Facebook post can be both unforeseen and unforgettable.
In one of the more well-publicized incidents, a woman from Massachusetts lost her job after posting a picture of her engaging in questionable antics at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia. She intended this entry to be seen only by friends, but like many people are discovering, information–especially controversial or humorous posts–has a way spreading. Eventually, the photograph was shared by Facebook friends and made its way to her employer. Her boss promptly fired her and announced the firing through a Facebook post! While her employer maintained she had been a “good employee,” the Facebook post said the photograph had proved “very upsetting” to their clients.
A woman who worked for a Swiss bank lost her job over a less outrageous incident. She called in sick to work, claiming she “could not work in front of a computer” that day. But later that day she posted a picture of herself lying in bed and made other posts–apparently feeling good enough to use a computer after all. After discovering her activity, her employers terminated her, saying the incident “had destroyed their trust in the employee.” Remember, public posts on Facebook are not off-limits from being viewed by your employer. (Her decision was tantamount to calling in sick, then calling in to tell your coworkers you were enjoying your day off at the beach.)
Another person was fired after publicly deriding her boss on Facebook, forgetting she had added her boss as a friend. Even if you haven’t added you immediate superiors as friends, the lesson to be taken from the Swiss bank employee is to assume anything you post can, and possibly will be seen by your coworkers.
Some people show even worse judgment. A man in South Carolina discovered his house had been broken into after seeing pictures posted by his children’s classmates. He was startled to see pictures of teenagers partying, drinking, and passed out throughout his house. He and his family were on vacation when the break-in occurred, and while he wasn’t Facebook “friends” with any of the perpetrators, the incriminating photos eventually made their way to his children’s friends. Hopefully, the illicit party-goers learned that being selective about your friends isn’t a surefire way to keep things private. Interesting pictures and messages get spread further and faster than boring ones, and anything scandalous or controversial tends to generate interest. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the homeowner), this means bad behavior gets more attention than good behavior. For employees or people in the public eye, the implication is clear: a hundred polite posts may get ignored by friends or employers, but one regrettable post can spread like wildfire.
Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself: One basic, if often forgotten rule is to remember who your friends are–literally. You may add a coworker to your friends list, but if you don’t communicate with them regularly, you may forget you added them when you make a post complaining about your job. This won’t stop regrettable Facebook content from being spread by others. Secondly, be sure to stay up-to-date with the privacy settings on your Facebook account. These tend to change often and with little warning. Information you once thought buried deep in your Facebook history can suddenly become visible if Facebook re-arranges its layout. Many people discovered this fact when Facebook debuted its new “Timeline” feature.
What can you do about content that is already on Facebook? While you can’t delete posts made by other users, you can delete anything that shows up on your profile or wall using features built-in to Facebook. Click on a post to access a drop-down menu that will give you the option to “Remove from Profile.” If you are tagged in a picture when you’d rather not be, use the “Remove Tag” feature.
If someone has posted a picture you’d like to see removed–even if you can’t delete it yourself–you still have options. The best first course of action is to send a message to the person, politely asking them to remove it. It’s also possible to flag content as spam. Facebook tends to delete posts or profiles that are continually marked that way. In extreme cases, you may have to contact Facebook directly. While Facebook isn’t known for being extremely responsive to user requests, this may be your only course of action. If someone posts a photograph that includes your picture, you may fill out the Facebook Intellectual Property Infringement Form and inform them you did not give the person permission to use your likeness. You can also contact Facebook, using the Facebook Terms Violation Reporting Form, if you feel you can argue the content violates Facebook terms and conditions. Facebook can also be reached at email@example.com or by phone at (650) 543-4800. Since Facebook is often unresponsive to users, however, you may have better luck with the other methods.
When it comes to regrettable Facebook posts, the old saying still applies: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” You may not like it, but it’s best to assume that anything you post on Facebook will be seen by everyone you know. Your boss may not have a Facebook account (that you know of), but what about your coworkers, their friends, and your boss’s friends? Even those of us who don’t consider ourselves “tech-saavy” have a responsibility to stay informed and responsible about what we share online.