We’ve been posting quite a bit on Facebook here in recent weeks, and I wanted to pass on a pair of new stories that have recently been posted on MSNBC’s website. Each are quite troubling and deserve our attention as digital citizens and as sociologists.The first article, which was published last week, describes how employers (including a police department) and colleges have been demanding “behind the scenes” access to Facebook accounts as part of their “background” checks of employees and/or students. The second article, published just yesterday, describes how a middle school student was forced, with police in the room, to turn over her Facebook password to her school principal. What is most troubling is that this is done, in all cases, to gain access to “private” messages that are not publicly available to viewers of an individual’s page on Facebook.
Each of these stories represent our society’s struggle over how to cope with the brave new world of social media. Facebook has become just the latest venue to criticize the boss or principal (though nothing beats a resignation letter posted on the New York Times’ opinion page). Unlike the water cooler or the local coffee shop, however, the digital footprints left behind on Facebook provide physical evidence of an employee’s displeasure. We lack a cohesive set of legal protections in the United States from this sort of behavior by management (be it the boss or the principal), though such intrusions do violate Facebook’s terms of service.
Until such protections are enacted, some are advising their students and colleagues to take their more sensitive discussions underground. We should all consider strongly the ramifications of our tweets, Facebook status updates, and blog posts for that job down the road or the one we’ve got. This much perhaps goes without saying. Yet we also need to consider as a society how to protect this speech and ensure that speech that occurs out of the public eye using social media can stay that way.