From Failbook, a chronicle of poor judgment on Facebook, yet another cautionary tale of unintentional oversharing on Facebook. The Facebook interface is contextually ambiguous for many casual users, making it all to easy to broadcast a message on the quasi-public wall of one of your friends when a private message visible only to its recipient was intended. Generally this is embarrassing but innocuous; this post, however, illustrates that the potential for serious real world ramifications is just a click away.
Last week Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise tweeted “Roethlisberger will get five games, I’m told,” referring to about Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlisberger, who was facing suspension for off-field conduct. Rothlisberger was in face suspended for six games. Wise later admitted that he had made up the suspension rumor – “As part of a bit on my show today, I tried to test the accuracy of social media reporting. Probably not the best way to go about experiment.” Now Wise has himself been suspended for a month by the Washington Post.
What struck me as remarkable is that a veteran journalist suspended for an entire month for a statement not made in the paper but on his private twitter feed not only doesn’t sue or protest, but seems contrite and accepting of the punishment and will presumably show up back to work ready to contribute in October.
But in the end, it proved two things: 1. I was right about nobody checking facts or sourcing and 2. I’m an idiot. Apologies to all involved.
How is it possible that this didn’t devolve into a nasty fight between employee and employer with colleagues picking sides and threats of lawsuits all around? Answer: the Washington Post’s Social Media Policy. It’s probably the clearest example yet of why every company should consider implementing one of their own.
The Post’s current policy guidelines don’t appear to be publicly posted, but PaidContent.org has an older version that sheds some light – Newsroom Guidelines for Use of Facebook, Twitter and Other Online Social Networks. The guidelines make it clear that there is no distinction between public and private for Washington Post journalists:
Using Social Networking Tools for Personal Reasons
All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.
Gone are the arguments that what a reporter says in his or her own capacity is somehow different than what appears in the paper. Here the paper represents a unique situation, cognizant that its reporters are still acting as reporters even when their statements aren’t made under the WP banner. There are probably arguments to be made on both sides here – is the Post thereby also taking responsibility for any individual twitter account by an employee?
The Post’s social media policy also imports higher journalistic standards in evaluating the propriety of individual statements.
When using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, My Space or Twitter for reporting, we must protect our professional integrity. Washington Post journalists should identify themselves as such. We must be accurate in our reporting and transparent about our intentions when participating. We must be concise yet clear when describing who we are and what information we seek.
In my mind, this is where Wise’s tweets went rogue in that an experiment in whether other journalists fact-check information culled from sources like twitter before repeating them inherently lacks transparency in intention.
However, the Post goes even further.
Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.
That could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias? By whose perception is this measured? is there any statement that would not reflect such a bias in the eye of the right beholder?
The Social Media Governance website has a database of social media policies available.
Like so many good ideas, once seen, it is instantly inevitable and I can only curse myself for not thinking of it first. Available across the pond from Nation Design.
UPDATE: The like stamp inspired me to add a “like” button to this blog. Why? Because we can. Knock yourselves out.
Emily Bazelon’s in Slate, How Should Facebook and MySpace Handle Cyberbullying? provides some fascinating insight on how social media companies view their role in responding to cyberbullying and how their reactions are affected by current law regarding privacy and immunity across state, national and international jurisdictional lines that has the potential to be a rat’s nest of contradictory standards.
The approaches taken by social giants Facebook and MySpace differ on how proactive they are willing to be in policing the sites:
MySpace uses an algorithm to patrol for users who are lying about their age and says it deletes hundreds of such accounts each week. The site also has monitors who patrol it, trying to detect problems on their own. Nigam [former federal prosecutor and Chief Security Officer at News Corp.] said these monitors give high priority to obscene photos and to postings about suicide or runaways and alert the authorities when they find them. MySpace also provides a 24-hour phone hot line, as well as an e-mail inbox, for parents and schools to report posts they think are abusive. MySpace staffers reply to messages sent to the inbox.
Facebook is straightforward about why it doesn’t have a hot line for handling complaints. “To be honest, we don’t spend a lot of time getting back to people,” said Joe Sullivan, the site’s chief security officer. “Our priority is reviewing the content and removing it if we think it’s inappropriate.”
For most active users, the biggest deterrent may be the ‘nuclear option’ – banishment.
It’s clear, though, that the sites have at their disposal a punishment that some kids probably dread more than being suspended from school or grounded: deleting a profile. Sure, you can change a few letters in your name and start over. But you’ve lost every photo and note you’ve ever posted and every friend you’ve made. “It’s like being banished from your town,” Nigam said. (Facebook and MySpace also ban the e-mail address associated with an account when they disable it and say they have extensive gray lists that prevent people from signing up with names commonly associated with fake profiles.)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation teamed with the UC Berkeley Samuelson Clinic on Law, Technology and Public Policy at Boalt Hall and unearthed through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests a fascinating window into how the government uses social networking sites to gather evidence in cases – EFF Posts Documents Detailing Law Enforcement Collection of Data From Social Media Sites.
Amazingly enough, the IRS seems to be a the forefront in terms of ethical policies:
Generally, you are allowed to review information from publicly accessible, unrestricted websites. Unrestricted websites do not require further action to gain access, such as entering your email address or registering. In civil matters, employees cannot misrepresent their identities, even on the lnternet. You cannot obtain information from websites by registering using fictitious identities.
Another presentation Obtaining and Using Evidence from Social Networking Sites (.pdf) by the Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, provides an interesting comparison of the practical ramifications of privacy and retention policies on digital evidence gathering.
The EFF’s Social Networking Monitoring project site will continue to post information which may well be worth monitoring for any lawyer with an interest in the area or clients that might be affected.