Facing up to the privacy risks of Facebook

The much-hyped social networking site Facebook may be a marvellous tool for staying in touch with friends and acquaintances, but there are concerns that journalists are endangering their integrity, as well as the anonymity of their sources, in this new online environment.

The Facebook craze has hit Europe like wildfire in thepast few months, and journalists have been among the networking site’s most eager adopters. More than half of BBC staff have joined it, and in Norway, a Facebook group for journalists counted some 1,200 members in early May – an impressive number considering how the country’s journalists’ union has 9,300 members.

However, this newfound enthusiasm has caused concern in some quarters. Per Edgar Kokkvold, general secretary of the Norwegian Press Association, has warned that exposing one’s sources on Facebook can weaken a journalist’s credibility and lead to perceived conflicts of interest. Others have argued that, for this very reason, journalists should not be Facebook friends with politicians, should not interview their Facebook friends in real life and should not list their contacts as Facebook friends in the first place.

During a recent debate organised by the Norwegian Journalist Union, a number of these issues were addressed. “In the case of Facebook, we are presented with two conflicting virtues: the need to protect our sources and the value of being transparent,” says Arne Jensen, deputy general secretary of the Norwegian Editors’ Association.

Trygve Aas Olsen, until recently editor of trade journal Journalisten said: “Is it really OK to post your contact book online? What about protecting your sources? On many occasions you need to take a beer somewhere out of the limelight. What if the boss of a whistleblower logs on to Facebook and finds evidence enough to suspect that this person is the source of the story?”

These concerns were contested by Martin H Jensen, from media site NA24/Propaganda.

“Facebook is not about blowing your sources – if you’re an experienced journalist, you don’t make such mistakes. Journalists must be allowed to be private people as well and to take part in technological evolution. I’m more worried about young, inexperienced journalists than those who’ve been in the game for a long time.

Wannabe journalists may collect as many friends as possible, uncritically, and see it as career enhancement. They may be less than careful with giving consideration to source protection, and young female journalism students may become easy pick-up targets for old hacks. I’m also surprised by the carelessness some people display when it comes to the kind of information and pictures they post to a semipublic site such as Facebook.”

Heidi Norby Lunde, community editor at ABC Nyheter, said: “I have less personal information on Facebook than in the phone book. You don’t sit in the pub discussing who your contacts are, likewise you don’t publish it on Facebook.”

Here are a few things to keep in mind about Facebook:

  • Journalists using Facebook should be intimately acquainted with the privacy settings – the default option on Facebook is to share as much as possible with as many as possible, so make sure you set the privacy settings to a level you’re comfortable with.
  • Once you list acquaintances as friends, they get the highest level of access to your personal information
  • The “Find Your Friends” feature grabs a list of all of your email contacts and tries to find them on Facebook. This means using your entire address book as a contact list. Most email software automatically adds anyone you have exchanged emails with as a contact. Be careful.
  • The in-built “newsfeed” and “minifeed” features will let everybody know just how much time you’re spending on Facebook, so it might be an idea to turn it off altogether, or at least not use Facebook during office hours.
  • It’s not unlikely that employers will come across your profile, so don’t publish pictures or information you don’t want people to see.

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