Facebook is a lot of things to a lot of people: a way to connect with friends and family members, a social gaming platform, a way to reach out to people, or even a marketing tool. What it should never be is a service that inadvertently ”outs” its LGBT users, but that’s precisely what has happened and, it would seem, keeps happening.
The Wall Street Journal reports on a case where two University of Texas students, who are members of the university’s Queer Chorus, were outed to their parents when the leader of the university music group added the two students to the Queer Chorus Facebook group.
Even though both students had enabled Facebook’s security settings to prevent their parents from seeing certain content, a clumsy facet of the group add feature meant that not only could someone add them to a group they had not elected to join, the group’s news was then posted to their Facebook walls, in turn revealing their membership to their friends and family.
How did this happen? You can find a breakdown of the peculiar group add feature’s behavior here.
Like many LGBT kids who use college to begin to explore their identities outside of their possibly restrictive home environments, those kids were not yet out to their parents. For one of them, it was incredibly hurtful. Her father reportedly left angry phone messages and threatened to end their relationship unless she renounced being a lesbian.
In fact, her father reportedly went so far as to write on his Facebook page, “To all you queers. Go back to your holes and wait for GOD. Hell awaits you pervert. Good luck singing there.”
The male student who was also outed in this incident has said his father didn’t speak to him for weeks.
A Facebook representative is quoted as saying, ”Our hearts go out to these young people. Their unfortunate experience reminds us that we must continue our work to empower and educate users about our robust privacy controls.”
Were this an isolated incident the assurance might perhaps be more mollifying. However, it is not.
As all Facebook users know, Facebook runs targeted ads as part of its social media service. These ads are tailored to specifically appeal to the user in question via information that Facebook harvests from your preferences. For most who elect to join the social media service, and therein consent to all that comes with having a Facebook account, this likely isn’t a problem.
However, the manner in which Facebook harvests and then applies its insights means that gay teenagers have in the past been put in the difficult position of having to answer questions as to why adverts targeted at the gay community are appearing on their Facebook profile. This led one teen in London, England, who had reportedly attempted to get rid of the ads, to be outed and then kicked out of his home.
A study published in 2010 even warned of the potential concerns this targeted ad mechanism could produce.
It would be easy to say that if you have something to hide, if you’re not “out” for instance, you should not use Facebook. However, this ignores the vital role Facebook and other social media sites might play for closeted and repressed youths. It is also a callous and unrealistic attitude in a world where social media is stitched into the fabric of our interactions.
It certainly is not as simple as casting Facebook in the role of a mustache twiddling villain either. After all, other online sites have suffered similar issues and, as mentioned previously, Facebook provides many avenues for LGBT teenagers to connect with communities to which they might not otherwise have had access.
It is also prudent not to overlook the anti-gay feeling the above mentioned parents carry that makes this, in the very first instance, such a troubling issue.
It does make clear, however, that Facebook and other social sites simply must do better in considering the potential privacy issues and the overall privacy needs of a community for whom being outed literally could endanger their lives and livelihoods.
It also serves as a reminder that we as a social media-using community must do everything we can to educate ourselves on exactly what using social media means in terms of the information we give away about ourselves and, also, the information we may inadvertently share.
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