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Magazines > Information Today > September 2009

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Information Today

Vol. 26 No. 8 — September 2009

Facebook: The Next Great Vetting Tool?
by Bill Greenwood

In 2007, a young intern at Anglo Irish Bank Corp. Ltd. told his boss he’d be missing work due to a family emergency. Instead, he attended a Halloween costume party, and pictures from the event found their way to his Facebook profile.

“His boss is no fool,” says John Blossom, president and senior analyst at Shore Communications, Inc. “He went to his Facebook profile and [found] a photo of him at his costume party that he was attending. And it was a pretty outrageous costume.”

The resulting email, in which the boss sarcastically complimented the intern’s fairy get-up, quickly spread around the internet, providing one of the earliest examples of Facebook’s impact on college students and recent graduates. Now, a significant number of educational institutions and businesses are using social networking sites to make professional decisions.

In “Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media Is Changing College Admission,” a report written by Nora Ganim Barnes, 21% of the colleges and universities surveyed stated that they research and recruit potential students on social networking sites. However, this practice is mostly employed in decisions involving scholarships, prestigious programs with limited seats, or other awards that receive a high level of publicity.

“If you’re a college or university, your school is really your brand, and just as every big product protects their brand, I think a college or university should be concerned with protecting their name,” says Barnes, chancellor professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth and director of its Center for Marketing Research.

And as that unfortunate intern’s story indicates, students can expect to face similar scrutiny once they graduate from college. According to Blossom, a “statistically significant” number of businesses are also taking a look at applicants’ Facebook profiles when making hiring decisions. He says that as Facebook has grown, so has the use of the site as a vetting tool.

“Businesses have accepted that people now use social media to express themselves regularly and that people are more likely than ever to blend personal and professional outlooks through social media,” Blossom says. “This makes it an absolute necessity for businesses to understand both who their potential or existing employees are as publishers through social media and to educate both potential and existing employees as to the impact that their publishing has on their professional lives.”

As such, potential students and employees should make their profiles as restricted as possible via Facebook’s privacy settings, says Dave Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Even so, he says the best thing these individuals can do is avoid posting any inappropriate material whatsoever.

“Even the things that you think are private, like a private Facebook page or an email to some other person, can always be copied and pasted,” he says. “Generally, a good rule of thumb is just don’t post anything online if you don’t want it to be public information.”

Schools Speak Out

However, just because some schools are conducting social media checks doesn’t mean that every institution is following suit. In fact, representatives from Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and Ohio State University all say they do not look at Facebook profiles as a standard part of their admissions processes.

“Frankly, we don’t have the time to look for individual student information on Facebook, and sometimes I doubt the authenticity,” says Greg Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia. He is worried that some students could hack into others’ profiles or post cropped or otherwise doctored images that show applicants in a negative light.

Despite this, he says he would not be opposed to researching potential students on Facebook to corroborate “fishy” portions of their applications. But if damaging material were found, he would first bring the matter to the student or the student’s current school before taking action.

Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton University, also says Facebook checks are not a regular part of the university’s admissions process. She says Princeton’s admissions office has only 3 months to evaluate more than 20,000 applications, so there is simply not enough time to check every profile.

“We go into this process looking for what is good about students and what is strong about their applications and their own personal strengths,” she says. “Unless they bring that into doubt, we’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Even so, there have been times when inappropriate language, comments, or pictures on an applicant’s Facebook page have been brought to her office’s attention, Rapelye says. In several of these cases, this content has given the office “great pause” when considering applications.

“Every student who is being admitted would be joining our residential community, and we’re asking the question of, ‘What kind of student is this going to be in our residence halls and as part of our community?’” she says. “If they have done anything to bring that into question, that could have a serious negative effect on the decision.”

Allen Kraus, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions and first-year experience at Ohio State University, says his school has not discussed making Facebook checks a part of the admissions process. While he believes that “what a student puts on their Facebook page may be a more genuine representation of what that student’s about,” he also is unsure how fair such a practice would be.

“Students seem to be increasingly savvy about managing privacy settings on Facebook,” he says. “There are students who reveal all on Facebook and then there are students who reveal nothing to people who are not their friends on Facebook, so would it be appropriate to factor in Facebook content for a student whose page is wide open and not have that opportunity for someone who decided to keep it private?”

However, he also says that while it is fairly unlikely that his school would check a student’s profile during the admissions process, it is much more probable that a profile could be looked at while a student is on campus, especially if the student applies for a tour guide job or some other position in which he or she is asked to represent the school.

The Business Side

Marjorie Hlava, president of Access Innovations, includes social network checks as a part of the hiring process. She says she researches applicants not only on Facebook but also on MySpace, LinkedIn, and Plaxo.

“It’s a different face,” she says. “People present a different face on different sites because Facebook is a lot more informal. For young people, MySpace is quite seductive, I think, so they put a lot of party stuff in there. But if they’re also on LinkedIn, for example, they have a more professional face.”

She says social network research is part of an intensive screening process that includes calling references, as well as spelling and proofreading tests. Social networks are used mainly as a way to verify the information in applicants’ resumes.

“If I find anything that doesn’t ring true, or anything that indicates illegal behavior, or anything that is of a hate and pornography sort of bent, that would knock them out of the running immediately,” she says. “Anything that would run counter to government regulations, we just can’t entertain those people.”

But Meg Keller, director of marketing at Alexander Street Press, says her company doesn’t conduct Facebook checks when hiring employees, as it does most of its hiring through scholarly publisher websites. If inappropriate content was brought to the attention of the company, it would be up to the hiring managers to determine how to proceed.

“If somebody were doing something clearly illegal, like offering free music downloads or something from their page, I suppose that could have an effect on hiring decisions,” she says.

Ethics 101

According to Blossom, legal issues regarding profile research are relatively minimal as long as the information is not used to personally damage the individual being investigated, for example, by exposing them to discrimination. However, many individuals, especially students, have ethical concerns about Facebook checks; they claim that checks amount to an invasion of privacy.

“I don’t think they have a right to do that,” says Regina DeLaurentis, a sophomore psychology and dance double major at Tulane University. “I know it’s public information, but it’s supposed to be for friends and social networking not ‘Let me find out about this person.’”

She adds that while many individuals may not present themselves in an entirely positive way on Facebook, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t perform well at the school or business to which they are applying.

But Claire White, a junior nursing major transferring from Quinnipiac University to Thomas Jefferson University, disagreed. She says she doesn’t consider profile checks to be a violation of privacy, adding that they are sometimes a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“If you’re stupid enough to put something that’s illegal or incriminating or just trashy of yourself, [then] you’re not probably qualified for the job anyway,” she says.

Kraus fell somewhere in the middle, saying it is not unethical, in his view, for schools to conduct profile checks, but they should inform students of the possibility of a check in their admissions materials.

“I think if universities are doing it and they are not telling students that they’re doing it, I don’t know that, to me, that qualifies as unethical,” he says. “It kind of qualifies as uncool, but it’s not the same thing I guess.”

However, Hlava says the internet is an open network, and anything posted on it is fair game. Rapelye, meanwhile, offers one tip: “Make sure everything you’re putting on Facebook you would be proud to have your grandmother read. And if you’re not proud of that, then don’t put it up.”


How Private Are Those Profiles?

Facebook checks aren’t the only things causing users to question just how private their profiles really are.

On July 13, Cheryl Smith, a consultant who blogs at Culture Smith Consulting, posted a screen shot of an advertisement for “hot singles” that her husband found while using a third-party Facebook application. The ad included an image of Smith ripped from her Facebook profile.

The story quickly took on a life of its own; it was picked up by Reddit, End of Web, Download Squad, Mashable, and Pop URL, according to a post from Smith. Originally, it was thought that the Facebook Ads program, which allows the site to place user images in select advertisements, was to blame for the snafu. As a result, Download Squad blogger Lee Mathews advised all Facebook users to change their Facebook Ads settings so that Appearance in Facebook Ads is set to No one.

However, Facebook spokesman David Swain later told Mathews that, because it was embedded in a third-party application, the ad featuring Smith did not come from Facebook itself.

“We recently had deceptive ads removed from a number of apps and prohibited two entire advertising networks from providing services to applications on Facebook Platform because they were not compliant with our policies and failed to correct their advertising practices,” Swain writes in Mathews’ post. “We are continuing to investigate to make sure ads that violate our policies stay off Facebook and may take further action against developers who host the ads.”

Still, these third-party networks were able to access Smith’s profile information, which Mathews found “a little offputting.”

“It’s clearly a situation that Facebook needs to sort out once and for all, or it’s just going to cause more controversy later,” he writes in his blog.


Bill Greenwood is an assistant editor at Information Today, Inc. and works on several publications. His email address is
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