The Fire Service PIO: Beware the Pitfalls Of Social Media

As time passes, social media is being used by more people of all age groups for a variety of reasons and its use will only get larger and stronger. Social media is the ability to communicate back and forth. Prior to today’s social media, there were the printed media, then radio and finally TV. When the Internet was introduced, communications became two-way.

With such tools as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many, many others, it is easier than ever to communicate – and to do so over a larger area: worldwide. While this is a good thing, it can also cause problems. The focus of this column is on some of the negative effects.

Protect your information

Have you ever seen on the news or heard of incidents where people collect another person’s trash that is left out at the curb for pickup? They go through it and try to find out information about that person, such as shopping habits, receipts, letters, bills – in short, anything with personal information on it.

Nearly 40 years ago, when I first started working for the city, I had to spend a year on a trash truck to “learn the city.” By the end of that year, I knew where every fire hydrant was, all the street names and practically all the cracks in the road. But this was also a time before large plastic trash bags and we dumped the un-bagged contents of people’s trash cans into the back of the trash truck. Just by the trash that was dropped in front of us, I knew practically everything about almost everyone in town. Today, we don’t need to go through trash. All we need is a computer or tablet and a little time and we can learn almost anything we want about anyone in just a matter of a few hours.

On social media people offer all kinds of information almost to the point of bragging about it and it is all done voluntarily. Maybe they’re doing it to impress friends, co-workers or relatives, but remember that millions of strangers are also looking at it. We post comments we probably would not say publicly, but because it is on social media, it does not seem like it is reaching so many people, although it is actually the opposite. The items you post such as photos, places you visit and what you “like” all tell what type of person you are. Once the information is posted, it is in cyberspace forever. It would be almost impossible to remove it all. It may seem funny or harmless at that moment, but it could be something that will haunt you for the rest of your life.

There may be legal ramifications. The information you post could be used in civil or criminal litigation. Photos or statements could be used to show proof of previous behavior or intentions of the invasion of privacy. Taking photos at incidents and posting them in some cases could violate people’s civil rights. Making statements about an incident you responded to could violate confidentiality laws. It may also violate department policy also. Some fire departments now have strict social media policies that in some cases could lead to termination.

Be careful about what you say in front of family members or friends, as they may take your information and then post it to their social media. Recently, there was a family that lost a very significant court case because of what their daughter posted on social media after the court ordered that it not be discussed.

If you have issues with law enforcement or the legal community, using social media just makes their job easier. Many employers are now using social media to screen potential candidates for employment or membership. Many people have told me that their decisions changed from hiring to not hiring after checking social media sites.

What are some preventative actions you can take? First, check the privacy settings on your social media sites and on the devices you use. If you have it set for public, that means anyone will have access. Even set at private or friends, if you send it out to them, they can resend out and then outsiders have access to it. Ask yourself, “Is this really necessary?”

Anything that you would take to a shredder to destroy should not be posted. Be extremely careful with photos. Never use or repost copyrighted material.

Does this mean social media is bad? Absolutely not, but these tools must be used responsibly. There are more good points in social media than bad, but the bad type can destroy you. You would never leave the front door open at home where anyone could come in at will. Social media should be treated the same. It could change your life, in good ways or bad. n