How to Avoid Getting Fired or Arrested for Your Facebook Posts – Is Online Activity Ever "Private?" Part 3

This is the 3rd installment of “Is Online Activity Ever ‘Private’?” You can read the other parts here:


Part One Suspended, Fired, Arrested for Facebook and Twitter Posts
Part Two – Facebook Privacy Concerns: Safety for Parents and Children

You’ve probably heard many times about people that have been fired from their jobs, suspended from school, or even arrested and put in jail just because of what they’ve posted online.

Usually this refers to what they’ve posted on Facebook. Sometimes it refers to what they’ve posted on Twitter. Other times it’s something else entirely, be it a personal blog post or a YouTube video.

Maybe they don’t even get into trouble of that extreme, but they get some sort of reprimand, regardless. Many times, these people probably don’t give it a second thought until that happens.

The question is, how can you avoid it?

The web of today is definitely not the same as that of ten years ago.  

Ten years ago, you had people hanging out in chat rooms mercilessly insulting others from the anonymity of their computer. Nowadays people post their information, their photos… People share their entire lives online with everyone they know, and often people they don’t.

Even though there is still a perceived anonymity from being at a computer, those websites virtually force you to give that up.

It may be easy to see how people get fired and arrested for what they do on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Or maybe you are one of those people that don’t see it as a big deal and frequently post about everything you’re doing.

Below I’ve provided some common-sense tips for avoiding trouble – especially being fired or arrested – from what you do online.

1. Set ALL your available privacy settings.

This should go without saying, but it’s easy to forget or even overlook. Facebook, especially makes it a somewhat layered effort to keep your profile totally private.

When I first tried to change my privacy settings, I thought I had everything locked up tight so that only people that I had “friended” would see what I put up.


A friend helped me out by signing into a Facebook profile I was not friends with to see what an average user would see. Most of my Facebook profile was hidden, but almost all my image albums were available.

Not only did I have to go back and separately hide those images, but Facebook also requires you to separately set privacy for different aspects of your profile, different apps, etc.

It’s great that it’s so customizable, but what I’m saying is there isn’t a one-click option to just hide everything from non-friends. Even though my story applies to Facebook specifically, it’s worth noting that most all sites have some sort of privacy settings available.

Set them according to how comfortable you are with your online material.

2. Watch who you add as a “friend” (or who you link with).

Lots of people shoot for the numbers when it comes to their Facebook “friends”. This used to happen all the time with MySpace. Random people would try to add you not because they wanted to know you, but just to boost their “friend” numbers.

John Tesh did a bit the other day (no, I am not a John Tesh/”Intelligence For Your Life” fanatic) mentioning the irony of people with over a 1,000 Facebook friends. Those people are actually more likely to have fewer GENUINE friends in the real world because they’re spending so much time online trying to falsify their numbers.

Although that is one reason to not add everyone that you see, another is because you don’t know who they are.

If you keep your information limited to your actual friends and family, even REAL online friends (i.e. people you’ve actually communicated with for awhile), you lessen the risk of people misunderstanding your remarks or seeing something that shouldn’t get out.

Employers sometimes view people’s Facebook profile, Twitter page, MySpace account, YouTube channel, whatever sort of information they can get their hands on about a person. If you haven’t configured your privacy settings, or you DID but then you add “Joe Blow” from “down the street”, that “Joe Blow” could be someone working for your potential employer.

And depending on what Joe Blow finds on your profile, your hiring potential may disappear. However, no matter who is on your profile or how tight your privacy settings are…

3. NEVER post anything illegal online anywhere.

This could be #1, or it could be omitted because people should know better. But if people always knew better and never made this mistake, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

It isn’t just a warning to not post any illegal activity online, it’s a warning to not post anything that even ALLUDES to illegal activity anywhere online.

For example, you may think it’d be funny to post a shot of you and your friends doing virgin Jell-O shots, or drinking apple juice out of a whiskey bottle. Obviously, NOT-drinking is completely legal. But who might see it and think otherwise?

Do you really want to find out? 

If you are of age, it might not be so bad since it’d be a legal behavior for you if it were actual alcohol. But do you want your boss to see that image of you?

And if you’re underage, forget it. You may TECHNICALLY not even be doing anything illegal, but if it appears that way, have fun trying to explain it when the wrong person comes across it.

So what if you only add family and friends and you have Facebook restricted to only allow your “friends” to see what you post? That’d be fine, except…

4. You can’t control what happens with your posts once they’re online, so be mindful every time.

This is where people often forget the long-term possibilities of their actions.

Let’s say you are some random 16 year old with a Facebook profile but have very tight privacy settings. You and your friends get together and think it’d be hilarious to fill a Vodka bottle with water and make it look like you’re all sitting around getting wasted.

You grab your camera and have another friend snap a photo of all of you and post it on your Facebook profile. All your friends get that it’s a joke and think it’s funny. One of them copies the photo and posts it to their own Facebook profile.

They don’t have their privacy settings set up like you do. 

Your teacher has a Facebook account and is randomly searching people. She finds the picture on your friend’s profile, and you’re obviously in it.

Even if you could somehow explain it and convince others, why bring the trouble on to begin with? Even if it’s just a comment that you make, people can and DO make screenshots of hilarious Facebook comments and post them online.

You don’t want to say or show anything that could cause you a lot of headache and even create trouble later on.While we’re on the subject of what you say…

5. If you are going to say something about a person or a company, be nice, be fair, or at least be cryptic.

It is easy to insult people these days, and people get offended at a multitude of things. It is easy to say something that unintentionally, perhaps even unknowingly, offends someone hearing it. That said, this is a lesson that has been around for quite some time.

The difference is that you now risk millions of people “overhearing” what you say.

This is a lesson even Bambi was taught years ago – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Granted, there are many sites dedicated to the complaint or not-nice side of things, but it’s still a good life lesson to adhere to.

People have gotten into pretty big trouble just for talking about something they didn’t like.

A Facebook post about how your boss is a jerk, a Twitter message talking about hating your job, maybe a blog article dedicated to how lousy your landlord is… These are the kinds of things that get people into real trouble when the wrong people read them.

If you MUST vent online about how seething mad you are over your cubicle neighbor, at least have the decency to make it private and still be cryptic about it. Someone made you really mad and you are actively trying to calm down.

If someone is curious, they can talk to you over the phone later or face-to-face after work.

6. It’s not always just about what you say, but also when and how.

This is truly a common-sense thing. Don’t get on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc from work unless your workplace and boss are OK with it or you have one of those jobs that actually requires it.

If you call in sick to work, school, etc, don’t post more than once or twice and don’t make it anything other than “I’m so miserable, can’t stop coughing” etc. If you post a photo, it better be of all the used tissues you’ve gone through.

The time of a post has gotten people into just as much trouble, even if the actual words or picture was completely safe. If you post a picture of yourself at Six Flags, that’s great. If you post a picture of yourself at Six Flags on a day you call in sick, you won’t have to worry about returning to that job.

You could sum it up in the way many people put it – “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t want to be seen on a billboard.”

It sounds a tad extreme, but it is the unfortunate truth. Your friends may know when you’re joking, but everyone that winds up reading what you’ve written may not take it the same way.

The most important thing to remember is to be mindful of what you are doing every time you post. “Do I care who sees this?” If the answer is yes, save it for the telephone.

Have you ever gotten in trouble, or known someone who has, for something they’ve posted online? Tell me about it in the comments, I’d love to hear your story.

Posted on July 27, 2011, in Life, Social Networking, Tech, Work and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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