How Facebook has become a risk for public servants, and what you can do about it

If you are one of the majority of public servants with a Facebook account, then it may be time to reconsider how you use the service.

As discussed in ZDNet’s post, Is Facebook damaging your reputation with sneaky political posts?, Facebook is now posting messages in your timeline and saying you ‘Like’ the messages simply because you once ‘Liked’ the Facebook Page that posted them.

So what does this mean, and how is it a risk to public servants? Here’s how it works.

When you ‘Like’ a Page in Facebook, Facebook assumes this means you also like all the content, status updates, images and other material, that may be posted on that Page by its administrators.

To be ‘helpful’ Facebook will automatically place some of the Page’s content in the newsfeeds of your Facebook friends, with a notice that you ‘Like’ the content.

Facebook calls this a feature, as quoted in the ZDNet article,

To help people find new Pages, events, and other interesting information, people may now see posts from a Page a friend likes. These posts will include the social context from your friends who like the Page and will respect all existing settings.

This may sound innocent enough, but what it means in practice is that if you ever ‘Liked’ a Facebook Page for any reason, any new content posted in that Page may now appear to your friends as explicitly ‘Liked’ by you.

As Pages can change administrator, content and focus, that innocuous Facebook Page on pet rabbits you liked two years ago may now start spewing controversial, obnoxious or otherwise inappropriate content into your Facebook friends’ newsfeeds – with each piece of content indicating that you ‘Liked’ it.

This could merely be embarassing, or it could put your career at risk.

Say you ‘Liked’ a Facebook Page for a charity you support that works in a policy area covered by your agency. Due to a change in government policy, that charity loses funding and, as a result, begins posting messages on its Facebook Page which are strongly critical of the government’s new policy to galvanise their supporters to write to the Minister. Even worse, one of the Page’s administrators has been radicalised and frames some of these messages in very strong, almost abusive, language.

These messages begin appearing in the newsfeeds of your friends, complete with a notice that YOU ‘Liked’ them. Incidentally, you don’t see them yourself because Facebook doesn’t notify you that they’re doing this and these messages don’t appear in your own newsfeed.

One of your friends (a colleague at your agency) is horrified that you’d act so unprofessionally and sends screenshots of the messages with your ‘Like’ to HR, notifying them that you’ve broken the public service code of conduct by publicly criticising your agency and the government.

You get called in for a discussion with your manager and a HR representative, who shows you the screenshot and asks you to explain your conduct…

Will they believe you when you claim ignorance?

Now compound this issue by thinking about every single Facebook Page that you’ve every Liked.

Any of them could begin posting messages which could embarrass you, or threaten your job and, thanks to this Facebook feature, indicate automatically that you ‘Liked’ each message.

Even worse you don’t even know when they’re doing it because you don’t see these messages in your own newsfeed.

So what should you do to deal with this?

Assuming that you’re not prepared to close down your Facebook page or, at least, unLike all pages that you have liked, I recommend that public servants look at their ‘Likes’ page (accessible from their Favourites page) and cast an eye over the pages they’ve Liked to see if any are likely to post content that will get them in trouble in their friends’ newsfeed.

Then make this a regular habit – check all your pages every month to see what they’re saying.

Finally, bring this issue with Facebook to your agency’s attention, so you’ll not be accused of ‘Liking’ content you didn’t.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

There seems to be a trend of unjustified fear-mongering among social network detractors. As long as you use social networks responsibly, including controlling your friends and who you like, as well as properly setting your privacy, we shouldn’t be afraid to use social networks (even GovLoop). I am always amazed at the paranoia surrounding the use of social networks, which only gives fuel to detractors, skeptics, and those who want to demonize social media.

David B. Grinberg

Here’s a simple solution: don’t join Facebook — I’m one of the few proud holdouts because one’s privacy is easily compromised, as your post points out. This is but one of many examples. Thus, if someone wants to “friend” me, do it here on GovLoop or find me on LinkedIn. Keep in mind that Facebook may be two-faced. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Thus, exercise online consumer caution.

Jerry Schmidt

For good or ill, the social media genie has been let out of the bottle. I battled joining Facebook for some time and honestly don’t spend much time on it now that I’m on it. (I joined because social media marketing was becoming rather prevalent and as an MBA candidate, I probably should have at least a page) and can’t understand how people spend so much time on it. That being said, if you are out there, remain vigilant. Keep a close eye on what’s on your wall and whom you allow to join your inner circle.

And Terry I can see your point as well. However, one of my graduate projects was called “The Dark Side Of Social Media & The Internet” and it pointed out (rightly so) that social media is a great tool. However, the only difference between a tool and a weapon is how it is utilized. Again, if you are out there, be careful. A little commen sense goes a long way.

Cindie Apruzzese

Yes. I have noticed this even on my facebook page. This is why I have made all facebook group on secret status. I also chat on the private messenger in fb when I don’t want anyone knowing my business.

Craig Thomler

Hi Terry & Deb,

I just wanted to point out that I’m a Gov 2.0 advocate and a big proponent of the use of social media, where appropriate, to support better policy and service deliver outcomes.

My intention with this post is not to ‘scarify’ people, but to bring to their attention a risk they need to manage that could otherwise hurt them. If managed, this stops being a risk, which makes the use of Facebook that little bit safer for public servants and government.

Like fire, social media is a fantastic and essential tool, however if not managed and understood, it can do horrendous damage as well. To support government use of social tools, public servants and agencies must be aware of the actual risks and equipped to manage them.

Carol Davison

HR staff know that encouraging conflict like this wastes energy that should be used to produce results for customers. When people with axes to grind dig up dirt on their co-workers we tell them to take it up their chain of command to someone who with authority to investigate, train and discipline the employee. Additionally, if government departments disciplined everyone who criticized their agency and government that would be the only thing that would ever got done.

Mike Hopper

I am not currently a Facebook user but my kids are. Why doesn’t Facebook tell you what it is doing (on your behalf)…or is it simply a “we didn’t read the fine print” -type issue?

Deborah Johnson

Alternately…start a work-only Facebook personna. Keep your personal stuff separate & block the 2 profiles from one another, & don’t duplicate your friends.

Alison Kershaw

Has anyone worked out a way to stop this, is there anything we can change in our account or privacy settings?

Elisabeth Leiting

I just try to be careful what I post on the web. Anything can be copied. There are a lot of people on Facebook who post pictures and quotes that I consider to be inappropriate.