Facebook: Friend or Foe?
It is no secret that social networking websites have become forerunners in the world of communication between colleagues, friends, family, and acquaintances. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, FourSquare, and other similar sites make it easy for us to get in touch with each other quickly and constantly with just the click of a button. They help us connect with new acquaintances and also reconnect with old ones. But while all of this is clearly beneficial to our personal lives, it is becoming apparent that it may be a danger to our professional lives. Since the explosion of new social networking sites began, employers have used information posted on people’s Facebook pages to either prescreen a potential employee or evaluate a current one, making hiring and termination decisions based on posts that they see. Not only is this practice a violation of employees’ rights to freedom of speech, but it also begs the question: can Facebook cause us to be unemployed?
The answer to that question appears to be yes. Numerous cases have been seen by the courts on both a state and federal level regarding the termination of an employee due to posts or comments on their Facebook pages that their employers happened to find. Most commonly it is schoolteachers that find themselves facing a lot of pressure to monitor their online activity on social networking sites. A teacher in Pennsylvania was suspended by her district for posts on her Facebook that referred to her students being “out of control” or “frightfully dim” (Pike). The teacher hadn’t named any students in specific in her post, nor had she named the school at which she taught. The post was also made outside of the workplace, on her own personal computer, using her own personal internet service (Pike).
Her suspension is questionably illegal; she worked for a government entity that has technically violated her right to freedom of speech. But her suspension is also a result that is not uncommon for teachers all over the country. Another teacher from Paterson, New Jersey, Jennifer O’Brien, was suspended from her position after parents of her students saw an unfavorable comment she made saying that she was “the warden of future criminals,” in reference to their children on her Facebook page and reported her to administrators (Townes). The post was questionably racist – the school at which she worked is predominately African-American. But when appearing in court, she defended herself by saying that the students were constantly unruly and that one had even hit her. Her comment, therefore, could technically be considered one that was made more for the purpose of “discussing working conditions,” which is a union-related activity that cannot be denied to members of a working union (Townes).
Although that was not the case that O’Brien argued for herself in court, an EMT from Connecticut that was terminated from her job for remarks on her Facebook about her supervisor did use that defense. She had apparently made an “angry and mocking description of the dispute and her supervisor on her Facebook page,” which had then been commented on by fellow employees who also had snide remarks to add to the post (Pike). When it finally reached the eyes of her supervisor, she lost her job, but not without a fight; she filed a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board through her union, claiming that by terminating her for a comment made about her working conditions while outside of the workplace constituted violating her right to engage in “union-related activity” (Pike).
After settling the case outside of court, the company she worked for agreed to change their policy that they had initially said she violated which prohibited “making disparaging, discriminatory, or defamatory comments when discussing the Company, or the employee’s superiors, co-workers and/or competitors,” which broadly incorporated speaking about working conditions and was therefore illegal (Pike). Closely related to this case is one in which a bus company’s policy prohibited “employees from using social media to ‘target, offend, disparage … customers, passengers or employees’,” which is illegal on the same grounds that speaking about working conditions was illegal for the Connecticut EMT (Pike). The NLRB has been forced to reconsider what is legal for a company to include in their social networking policies.
It is not just comments on Facebook that can get employees in trouble though. Pictures also have the power to cause a termination of a job if it is considered indecent by an employer. One such instance includes a nurse from Northampton General Hospital who was fired after a picture one of her coworkers posted on Facebook was seen by her boss. The picture was taken in the hospital ward and her bra was visible in the picture. Although her employer clearly had a right to deem her conduct while in the hospital inappropriate, another picture that had been uploaded showed her and her two colleagues fully dressed while working in the presence of a patient, and she was eventually reinstated (“Nurse Who Showed Bra On Facebook Reinstated”).
While it can’t be definitively stated that Facebook can cause us to become unemployed, it also can’t be said that it doesn’t. Although we may believe that our personal lives should be completely separated from our professional lives, it is not unfair to say that employers have the right to be in full knowledge of the true demeanor of the people that they trust to do good work for them and represent their company.
But although Internet has diminished the certainty of sustaining a position in the working world during the last decade, it also has changed our job market in a more positive way. Whether it involves finding jobs or advertising open positions, the internet has provided employers and job seekers with an important tool for the expansion of their companies and their professional connections through the use of social networking sites. Although it is obvious that we must be careful about what we post on these sites if our accounts are monitored by our employers, the presence of Facebook and other social media sites in the professional world can also carry a lot of benefits – networking with colleagues or partners, promoting business through advertisements or referrals, etc. But there is still leeway for opposing viewpoints on the matter for those who believe that Facebook and other social networking sites shouldn’t have any connection to the professional world.
One of the most important issues with Facebook being used as a professional tool is the obvious lack of privacy. It is no secret that employers are able to prescreen job candidates through their Facebook pages before an interview even takes place; a study conducted by researchers at the University of Dayton found that “32 percent of students think it is unethical for companies to scan the Facebook profiles of job candidates,” mainly because a prescreen could violate equal opportunity rights in this country (Read). But it is also true that the economy is not presently in its best state, which means that companies are striving to out-do their competition so that they can successfully stay in operation despite the economic downfalls they are experiencing. In order to rise above competition, a company needs to stand out as being the best, and in order to be the best, they must have the best employees, an ideal staff of respectable, hard-working personnel. In order to assemble such a staff, “40 percent of companies say they would at least consider perusing Facebook profiles before making hiring decisions” (Read). Using Facebook to prescreen candidates allows for employers to find the best candidates to enhance their company’s success.
Although not all companies and businesses use Facebook to prescreen or investigate employees, one company that most certainly has the access to do so is Facebook itself. With 3,200 employees and a “headcount rising about 50 percent per year,” Facebook has become one of the fastest growing companies in the nation over the last decade by creating “a new social media universe that supports games, advertising tools, and other applications that didn’t even exist a few years ago” (Newman). And while this sounds as though Facebook has become an asset to the economy by decreasing the unemployment rate, many will argue the obvious point that Facebook’s job market is really only geared towards one demographic: “college graduates under 40” (Newman). The type of skills required to be employed and useful at Facebook generally exist in the forms of “software engineers, product designers, and other personnel with certain technology expertise” (Newman). This decreases the actual value of Facebook’s expanding job market because it only pertains to a certain group of people, rather than the entire nation. However, for those that do not have the kind of skills needed to be a Facebook employee, the site can still be used to look for and find jobs in other job fields with other companies. According to a study done by employee recognition provider, I Love Rewards, and career-services network, Experience, 35% of college students plan to use Facebook or LinkedIn, another networking site geared more toward professional networking, to find a job post-graduation (Laura).
One drawback to using these sites for job hunting, however, is that most of us separate our personalities into different categories depending on the audience that we expect to be viewing each side of us. We have a professional side, which we share in the workplace and with acquaintances; we have an informal side, which we share with friends and family; and we also have a personal side, which we share with only ourselves. All of these separate aspects of our personalities make up who we are as individuals. But these different personalities converge and are shared with a much larger audience when our professional lives and personal lives become intertwined due to the emergence of higher technology and social networking which has made it a lot easier for others to view a glimpse of parts of our lives that we may not want them to see. Even schools use these sites to intervene with student conflicts and law enforcement officials use them to dig up information on certain cases or to find a basis for targeting a group of people in an investigation.
In Ocean Township, New Jersey, during the ’07-’08 and ’08-’09 school years, the township’s police department regularly perused the Facebook pages of high school students in search of pictures that showed the consumption of alcohol by minors. This time period was when Facebook first became available to high school students, having previously only been available to college students with a registered e-mail address from a college or university. Because of the novelty of the website, most students were unaware of the dangers that posting various pictures, status updates, or comments could cause for them. Detectives began making fake Facebook accounts, uploading usually a single picture of a high school aged student for the default picture and then selecting “Ocean Township High School” as the network they wished to join. As they began friend requesting students, most were completely unaware that this student that apparently went to their high school, who they had never heard of before, was actually a police detective scanning their pictures or status updates for signs of past or potential underage drinking. Students seen with alcohol in their pictures were issued underage drinking citations by the police and were forced to participate in the “Student in Good Standing” program set up by the school, in which students were required to complete thirty hours of supervised community service and obtain letters from two different teachers that described their outstanding performance in the classroom before presenting their case to a board of administrators who then decided whether or not the students would face detention or suspension from school. They have since discontinued the practice after an uproar of complaints from parents who claimed that the way in which the department went about invading the Facebooks of their children was illegal and immoral.
The use of social media profiles for purposes such as these may seem to be an invasion of privacy, but that accusation is entirely dependent upon what one defines to be an “invasion of privacy.” Generally, an invasion of privacy is considered to be the act of prying into someone’s private life without their permission or consent; but if someone signs up for a social networking account and provides all their information on a public website, regardless of their “privacy settings,” can it truly be considered an invasion of privacy for an unintended audience to access that information? According to a 2010 article in Computers and Composition, Gina Maranto and Matt Barton report that, “both Facebook and MySpace (and their parent companies) are far more concerned with profits than privacy. Neither site claims to keep user information confidential; indeed, their profits come from exchanging this data with companies who are exploiting these sites” (Maranto and Barton). This means that essentially, no matter what kind of privacy settings or blocks that someone may place on a social networking account, the expected level of privacy is never truly enforced.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook or MySpace sells out all of their users’ personal information to anyone who wants it; what they do, however, is allow outside advertising agencies to access their users’ basic information and interests in order for these companies to provide targeted advertising to as many people as they can. With the introduction of the Beacon advertising program on the Facebook website in 2007, Facebook essentially has “empower[ed] advertisers to target … ads using the information on the personal profiles that members supply to Facebook. A national advertiser could sell ads to a huge group (all women between 25 and 40), or a local advertiser, like a restaurant, could pay much less to reach a microgroup (Ivy League-educated Indian-food lovers in a specific ZIP code). You could even target people who work for a specific company,” according to Stan Levy in his Newsweek article “Do Real Friends Share Ads?”. The use of these advertising schemes is inversely related to the loss of privacy privileges on the internet; the less privacy we have, the more money advertisers accumulate. However, Facebook’s privacy officer at the time, Chris Kelly, assured users of the site that personal data is never given to the advertising agencies (Levy). As long as personal information is not exposed by Facebook, an advertising agency’s access to a person’s interests or recent web searches doesn’t really affect their lives in any other way other than the fact that agencies are able to deliver more targeted advertising to Facebook users.
Many people don’t even feel as though this access to their interests and activity on the internet is really that detrimental; by entering this information into a public website such as Facebook, users immediately give up their threshold for an expected level of privacy. Acohido Byron reported in his USA Today article, “Frequent users less wary of Facebook” that “only 26% of respondents who use Facebook at least daily said they were ‘very concerned’ about privacy, compared with 35% who use the social network at least once a week, and 39% who use Facebook less often.” Forty-six year old Facebook user Danny Jackson of Maine told Byron, “I really don’t care if people know about the stuff I like.” USA Today partnered with Gallup Poll to survey a group of 2,000 adults, in which they concluded that the more that users actually use Facebook, the less likely they are to be concerned with their privacy. Yet even still, “technologists worry about Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others racing to develop businesses based on amassing vast amounts of data about what people do on their PCs and mobile devices” (Byron).
This potential “invasion of privacy” that is imposed on users by Facebook, however, is still not nearly as invasive as the Intercept Modernisation Programme proposed in the Communications Data Bill in the UK in 2008. According to Becky Hogge in her article in New Statesman in 2008, the program’s intent was “to log details about every web page [they] visit, every SMS message [they] text and every e-mail [they] send. And not only that, but to store all this ‘communication traffic’ information in a central database.” While this program is incredibly intrusive in the private lives of all UK citizens, its intent was for the purpose of national security and protection after the 2005 terrorist bombings in London. This program would ultimately “dramatically reduce the cost of mass surveillance, and allow the security services and other law enforcers to trace friendship trees … and thereby to hunt for potential conspirators as yet unknown to the authorities, subjecting them in turn to more intrusive surveillance techniques” (Hogge). The entire concept is a catch-22 because although it invades the private lives of UK citizens tremendously, it also allows for more extreme safety measures to be enforced by the government in order to protect the public.
While the bottom line definition of an “invasion of privacy” will vary from person to person, most will agree that our lives have become significantly less private with the introduction of new technology and social networking. It is unnerving to imagine that all information that we may have ever entered into any online program or website can be available to almost anyone that tries to access it, but if there is a beneficial way to use that information — focused advertising, national security, etc. — the “invasion” isn’t so much a danger as it is a revolutionary tool for social and technological innovation.
It is clear that there are beneficial aspects of Facebook being used in the professional world, allowing companies to hire and maintain the most successful staff and recruit candidates in a much more timely and cost-efficient manner. And perhaps instead of criticizing all the ways in which Facebook is detrimental to our professional world, maybe it is more realistic to accept that the impact exists and discover how we can use it to transform the standards of the workplace.
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