People can try to take down sensitive content on social media, but what’s posted online is forever and available to future employers. Graphic by Madeline Woods

Social media self-censorship needed in evolving digital age

Digital footprints are available to potential employers, so it’s important to monitor your online presence.

You are responsible for your online reputation. While yes, the first amendment guarantees freedom of speech (at least on American servers), you must use discretion when putting something online. Anything you put on the Internet will likely be there a very long time, if not forever. Friends see it. Employers see it. Hackers see it.

A 2013 report based on a sample of 3.9 million Facebook users revealed that a full 71 percent of them engaged in some kind of self-censorship on the social media platform. For the purposes of this study, self-censorship was defined as typing more than five characters into a social media input box before deleting them, never to be posted at all. According to this method of measurement, one-third of all Facebook posts at the time were self-censored, although the researchers warned they likely captured quite a few false positives.

In an earlier study, researchers found five main reasons people censor what they post online:

1. Aversion to sparking an argument
2. Concern that the post would offend someone
3. Feelings that the post was boring or repetitive
4. Deciding the post undermined “their desired self-presentation”
5. Unable to post due to a technological constraint.

I can easily add another one to this list: desire to land a salaried job. Increasingly, employers use social media to dig through personal history and find out much more about you than you likely thought. Remember those dumb posts in middle school? No? Well, employers see them. Or that time you had a fight with the ex on somebody’s feed? Yep, employers see that too. I even had an interview once where the interviewer asked me about a nickname I’d used during a high school campaign for senior class treasurer. “Mr. Garoffolo, what can you tell me about ‘The Italian $tallion’ campaign?” Some questions you really don’t want to answer when a salaried job is on the line. Luckily for me, that was a fairly harmless situation. But that’s not always the case.

Especially considering the recent news story regarding Facebook’s data sharing with Cambridge Analytica, one must be extra cautious when putting anything online that’s connected to one’s name. While the outrage over Facebook is quite understandable, let’s not forget that each and every person whose information was “leaked” put that information online voluntarily. In our efforts to become more connected with each other, we’ve voluntarily given up assumptions to complete privacy.

This is what astounds me every time people are up in arms about Facebook’s security flaws. Whether it’s your inability to screen who sees your newsfeed or inability to make sure your information is hidden from non-friends, you decided to put that information online. When you decide to put your personal information on the technological super highway that is the world wide web, you have to accept that no matter what preferences you lock in on Facebook, your data is still vulnerable to somebody.

Recent hacks highlight the problem. Target paid out $18.5 million for its 2013 data breach that affected the personal information of 41 million shoppers. In 2011, Sony suffered a breach in its PlayStation Network that led to the theft of names, addresses and even credit card information belonging to 77 million users. Equifax was hacked in 2017, exposing the birthdates, social security numbers, and driver’s license numbers of 143 million consumers; 209,000 had their credit card information exposed as well. In 2016, Uber suffered a breach that it took a year to make public, even paying the hackers $100,000 to destroy the stolen data without any proof that they actually did so. And the list goes on.

All that to say: the Internet is not a 100 percent, ironclad, secure place. There are inherent risks each time you put any of your personal information onto the Internet, regardless of if it’s meant to stay private or not. You are responsible for your own digital footprint. Are VenMo and CashApp convenient? Of course! Are they likely susceptible to hackers? Absolutely! Uber suffered; likely Lyft is no different. Each company can learn from the mistakes of the other, but it’s like trying to keep a vaccine ahead of an ever more intelligent virus. Each time we update the vaccine, the virus only grows stronger and evolves to beat it. Hackers will continue to evolve.

If you put something online, do so with caution. Be aware that there is no perfect system. Self-censorship is a smart plan, especially with social media networks that make your entire digital history available to potential employers. If you posted dumb stuff as a teenager (and who didn’t?), at least go back through and clean it up. Nothing is worse than getting all the way to an interview, thinking you’re about to land the job and execute the final handshake when your interviewer asks: “One last thing … about this picture of you in Padre last year doing what appears to be a ‘boob luge’…” Some things just don’t need to be shared, folks.

Post Author: Alex Garoffolo