Wednesday, July 18, 2012

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.


  1. Hi Craig,

    Thank you for alerting APS staff to this! I will definitely be bring this to as many other people's attention as possible.

    Could you please also provide comment on whether using Twitter, LinkedIn, etc shares in the same 'risk'? Perhaps in another blog post?

    I've already tweeted this (@djp1974 and you provided a response but I thought it would be better to loose it from the Twitterverse.

  2. Thanks David - I thought I wouldn't mention other services as they're not doing this at the moment, or are structured differently and so can't do this.

    Otherwise there's a lot of services to talk about! :)

  3. I'm not so sure that it's a breach of the APS Code of Condct to publicly criticse your agency r the government.

  4. Or could you come at this from the other direction and now say that an agency will need to prove that you chose to like something.

    Could this new 'feature' be a way for people to avoid consequences of liking something that may cause them trouble at work by arguing that they new nothing about it 'that is a sneaky thing that facebook does - it wasn't me'.

    Granted - not a very strong defence, but enough to cause doubt about who was responsible.

  5. Gavin, that's a VERY valid comment. Aren't we just like the MPs? Innocent until PROVEN guilty?