Protecting Yourself on Social Media

By Doctor Comrade

This post was originally published in two parts on GradHacker (Part 1 | Part 2)

Recent controversies surrounding the dismissals of academics (and others) following contentious posts on social media should concern anyone trying to get a job in academia. The current generation of grad students grew up with social media and is comfortable being free and open with information online. Moreover, having an online presence can help scholars connect, share information and research, find collaborators, and alert others in the field of upcoming publications, as illustrated by Julie Platt’s post on how to network with colleagues. Social media can also provide spaces for intellectual exploration and self-promotion, but as Myra Ann Houser argues, scholars need to be aware of the ways online interactions can spur backlashes from students, colleagues, and universities.

In 2014, Dr. Steven Salaita’s tenure-track position was withdrawn by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign following controversial Tweets he wrote about Israel.

In 2014, Dr. Steven Salaita’s tenure-track position was withdrawn by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign following controversial Tweets he wrote about Israel.

Despite being a legal grey area, employers have started using reviews of candidates’ social media to help make hiring decisions. I think we all believe in academic freedom and the freedom of speech, but it is clear that potential employers have other concerns which may jeopardize your job prospects. As Katy Meyers has pointed out, your digital profile is being created at all times, whether you are involved or not, so it’s essential that you take control of your online presence (this excellent post by Ashley Wiersma gives tips on what skills are needed to master social media).

Many of us see social media as a critical part of our lives. The connections to friends, family, and colleagues are easily made and maintained, which to many people makes social media indispensable. Moreover, online expression--including artwork, sharing political opinions, and interacting with strangers--seems to be interwoven into the way we experience the digital world. This post will show you how to manage your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter profiles to facilitate a flourishing online presence without endangering future job prospects.

1. Facebook

Facebook is the world’s biggest social network, so we’ll start with fixing your Facebook page. Facebook’s privacy settings are complicated and not user-friendly. There is no simple solution, so we’ll look at five different steps you can take to ensure you’re safe.

  • First, go to the dropdown arrow at the top right of the Facebook page and select Settings. That will take you to General Account Settings, where you’ll have several tabs on the left side of the screen. Select General. In the General screen, you’ll see Name, Username, Email, Password, Networks, and Temperature. Under networks, you’ll see which networks you belong to (for example, my high school and my undergraduate institution are listed). People in these networks can view your profile. If you want to increase your security, you can click Edit, and then Remove on whichever network you no long want to be a part of.

  • Second, go to Security on the left side of the window. If you ever need to deactivate your account, or if you decide changing your privacy settings is too onerous, this is where you can do it.

  • Third, go to Privacy. This is the most important tab because it gives you the option to decide who can see your posts. By Who Can See My Stuff?, click Edit and change it to Friends. Now only people who are your friends can see what you post in the future. However, this does not retroactively change posts you’ve already made. To fix those, click Use Activity Log to review what posts you’re tagged in. If your friends have tagged you in a compromising picture, you can un-tag yourself. Then, click on Limit Past Posts. If you choose to click Limit Old Posts, it will change all your old public posts to being available only for friends. This is the most important step.

  • Fourth, go to Who Can Look Me Up? in privacy settings. If you want to make your profile harder for potential employers to find, change who can find you on Facebook by your email address and phone number. Then change Do you want other search engines to link to your timeline? to No so you won’t pop up in a Google search.

  • Fifth, go to Timeline and Tagging on the left side of the page. These settings allow you to change who can post to your timeline. Under Who can add things to my timeline?, you can change the settings to prevent people from tagging you in compromising content before you review it. Then under Who can see things on my timeline?, you should change everything to Friends so only people you have already become friends with can see what you post. Under How can I manage tags?, change those to Friends as well so people who aren’t tagged in those posts can only see them if you’re friends. In essence, Facebook’s features allow you to customize who can see what you post. If you limit your audience to only your friends, then you’re probably safe. However, this does not apply to comments you make on public pages, like if you comment on a news story from the Los Angeles Times or comment on a page of a musician you like. Those comments are public because you wrote them on public pages, so be careful about what you say.

2. Instagram

Instagram’s privacy settings are much easier to navigate, and there is a simple solution to hiding your profile from prying eyes. In the Instagram app on your phone, click on the profile icon at the bottom right of the screen, then the cog at the top right for Settings. Under Account, use the slider by Private Account to activate this setting. This setting means that only people you approve can see your posts. In order for nosy researchers to see what pictures you’ve put on Instagram, they have to send you a Follow Request, which you can deny if you don’t know the person.

3. Twitter

Twitter is the least private of the big three social networks. Twitter, by its nature, does not function unless tweets are public for everyone to see. However, Twitter’s new features resemble Facebook’s privacy features, so if you want your Tweets to be private, you can do that.

  • From your Twitter profile page, click your picture in the top right corner and select Settings. Click Security and Privacy on the left side of the page. Under the Privacy heading, you can select who can tag you in photos. You can also select Protect my Tweets so that only people you approve can see your tweets. Note: same as Facebook, this does not retroactively hide your public tweets from before you changed settings. If you want to hide those, you have to go back to your Twitter timeline and delete them.

  • Some Twitter mechanics may also endanger you. For example, anything you tweet with a hashtag (#) is publicly available because you’re commenting on a public topic. This allows users to organize their timelines to view all tweets about a specific hashtag (like #BlackLivesMatter). Additionally, using the @ symbol to tweet at other users allows that user’s followers to view your tweets. Also, because all Tweets are public and searchable by default, anything you tweet can come up as a Trending Topic, even if you don’t use a hashtag.

  • More importantly, you can review the Apps that have access to your Twitter account. Under Apps on the left side of the settings screen, you can see the permissions that you have given apps to post to Twitter on your behalf. For example, if your Instagram is connected to Twitter, then any post you make to Instagram, even if it is private on Instagram, becomes public on Twitter. You can click Revoke Access to prevent these kinds of mishaps.

  • If you want to have a private interaction on Twitter, you have to use the direct message function. To do this, go to whatever user you want to direct message and click Message rather than Tweet to. This makes your conversation private.

Undoubtedly, being active online is important to most of us because of the social and professional networks that exist in these digital spaces. But we also have to admit that our online presences can get us in trouble, which means we need to take the initiative to protect ourselves. Hopefully these tips will help keep your private life out of the public spotlight while allowing you to have an active social media life as well.

However, the downside to limiting the visibility of your posts is just that: it makes your online activity harder to find for people you aren’t already friends with. Julie Platt’s post on how to use social media to collaborate with other scholars illustrates how important social media is to modern academia. And Ashley Wiersma’s post on developing your online brand demonstrates how social media can help you land jobs and garner attention from peers. But maintaining an active presence online is troublesome. On the one hand, we don’t want to offend anyone or endanger our employment; on the other, we don’t want to hide everything we post from the people we want to see it. So how can we safely navigate the digital minefield that is social media?

I will try to help you find a balance between privacy and visibility. Myra Ann Houser posted about maintaining a positive web presence, including advice like using your full name, not gossiping, and taking responsibility for everything you post. Similarly, Katy Meyers wrote a post about taking control of your online identity, offering tips on how to maintain a professional demeanor, engage with others, and keeping a consistent brand. In the same vein, Patrick Bigsby has offered guidance about your how you should present your political views online. These articles give great suggestions about what I’d call the frontward-facing part of your social media. My advice is about the backside of your web presence, the nuts-and-bolts of social media, and how to act strategically to ensure that you can post freely online, interact with colleagues, be professional, and stay safe.

“Under which pseudonym shall I write today, ‘Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna’ or ‘Lev Davidovich Bronstein’?”

“Under which pseudonym shall I write today, ‘Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna’ or ‘Lev Davidovich Bronstein’?”

The most important piece of advice I can offer is to utilize online anonymity when appropriate. We know that anonymity allows people to be more candid and cruel, often with terrible effects. But anonymity is also a potent political tool used by people who may be at risk of breaking the law because of their beliefs, and it allows scholars to speak openly about university policies which may negatively affect their lives and research. Therefore, if you hold a belief you think would get you fired or not hired, you can use social media under pseudonyms. That should protect you from Google searches and other tools used to examine your online history.

But there are other practical ways to keep your personal opinions separate from your professional life. I think we all believe in academic freedom in the abstract, but the digital world makes our unpopular opinions visible to more people in power, people who may wish to terminate your employment if they disagree with you. What you can do is follow this basic rule: if you are afraid of posting something with your real name, but you absolutely have to post it, keep it separate from your professional accounts. For example, if your website uses your name in the domain or has a link to your curriculum vitae, don’t post your manifesto there. Consider using a blogging platform or creating a new website with a catchy title. On Facebook, you can use the Pages tool to create a public profile that people can like, and you can post your work to it, but keep your personal Facebook profile private. Or you can have two Facebook accounts: one professional and one personal.What I’m suggesting is that you should rigidly separate personal and professional online presences.

If you want to attach your name to something controversial, you certainly can, but you should be aware that you might face backlash. This advice is not legal advice and may not protect you, but there are other ways that you can try to shield yourself from some criticism. You should make your associations defensible: if you are publicly posting content that may be offensive, be sure you’re not doing it as a representative of your institution (for instance, my Twitter and website don’t mention where I work now, so I can never be mistaken as speaking on behalf of my place of employment. You can also include a statement specifically clarifying that your views do not represent your institution.). Don’t post from work accounts or shared accounts.

Even more importantly, your politics should be defensible. If you have to express something online, be able to furnish evidence that can contextualize your arguments. In effect, be scholarly. Moreover, be professional, be courteous to interlocutors, and be aware of your tone. Using obscene or insulting language and resorting to ad hominemattacks draws the most attention and makes you look foolish and unprofessional. Not only can this discredit your points in the eyes of your audience, but it also represents your professional accomplishments negatively.

I can’t stress enough the importance of determining what should be considered public and what should be considered private. Once you post something, you don’t own it anymore, and it becomes controlled by your intended and unintended audiences. You have to ask yourself what is worthy of having your name—and your credentials, the name of your institution, and your future job prospects—attached to it. If you feel like you are willing to risk your reputation, then you should construct an online presence that is defensible and professional, and you have to be aware how employers, students, administrators, and boosters define what is and what is not acceptable.