Thoughts from a Graduate Student on Facebook and Issues of Freedom of Expression

Facebook and online censorship is a common topic among users of the site. Many recent or soon to be graduates are told to limit the information they share on their personal profiles for professional purposes.

Most employers probably look up potential candidates online and if that means peeking at a prospect’s Facebook page, you might have some things to consider. In fact, according to a CareerBuilder survey, 37% of employers are looking up candidates Facebook profiles to get a general sense of how professional the candidate might be. On the other hand, 12% of employers look at candidate’s profiles to find reasons why they shouldn’t hire them. Facebook started as a more personal social networking platform vs. a professional one like Linkedin.

I use Facebook for personal reasons to connect and share information with friends and family. I feel it is a great networking platform between friends and not with employers. I have my profile setting set to private to prevent my page from showing up on a simple Google search. Facebook and privacy settings are constantly changing making it difficult to be a private user.

However, there are some bigger issues revolving social media platforms than job searching and privacy settings. Freedom of expression is tightly linked to the internet and generally allows users to express themselves without heavy censorship.

The protest in Egypt on January 25th, 2011, challenged some of the issues regarding the internet, Facbook and freedom of expression.  Activist Wael Ghonim credited Facebook as a contributor to the success of the Egyptian people’s uprising against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Ghonim reached out to many Egyptian youths through Facebook to encourage the ouster of Mubarak. It was through online communication and organization through Facebook that helped encourage the protest. This leads to questions surrounding the proper uses of Facebook as a social platform and how it is ultimately governed.

So we’re told we can’t be too explicit with our personal profiles, but we can create pages that encourage political protests? Ghonim’s page titled “We are all Khaled Said,” was originally created to commemorate the death of Khaled Said, who was beaten to death by a police officer for promotion drug possession online. The page later emerged as a platform for Egyptian activists that was used in conjunction to share photos and images of police brutality that led to the internet temporarily being shut down in Egypt. So what exactly was the purpose of the censorship? Was it because of the content associated with the images or the actual promotional of a political revolution?

Monitoring personal Facebook pages when it comes to job searching seems trivial when people in other countries are using the social platform for news and other forms of communication.

Now Facebook is allowing its users to vote on December 10th on proposed changes to its policy regarding privacy changes and data use and how it is shared. Facebook’s latest privacy change would allow information to be shared publicly with its photo-sharing service Instagram. In addition, the changes would allow advertisers to message users directly and change user settings that control who can send and receive messages on Facebook.

So what was intended to be a social networking site to connect users with friends and family has now become a site used by employers to weed out applicants, a site to encourage political change and a site to help advertisers position specific ads to target demographics. Where do we draw the line of censorship? Users are told to limit what they post to avoid problems with getting a job. Countries are told they can’t use the site to communicate newsworthy information because of the sensitivity of the content but yet it’s ok to share user’s information with public companies such as advertisers?

Facebook shouldn’t have to box its users with invisible guidelines of what should and shouldn’t be shared on the site especially when there are privacy options. To allude to a sense of privacy and yet share user information is a violation of trust. Users need to understand that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. Underneath it all, Facebook is used to connect people with the world, and unfortunately a world outside of friends and family. Advertisers and employers are going to be there no matter what the privacy guidelines are. The best practice is to self-censor personal pages and leave the rest up to Facebook to decide when content isn’t appropriate.