Could Accepting Rush Limbaugh's Friend Request on Facebook Cost You Later?

By Catherine Potts | Sep 23, 2009
More Articles by Catherine

What do your online relationships say about you? I’m not talking about online dating; I’m talking about your social media relationships. What things are revealed about you, online, that you don’t even realize are being revealed?

Could it be that something about you gets revealed just by the friends you have and if your friends (or maybe just one friend) are, say, part of

Facebook, Inc.Image via Wikipedia

some group, that, in-turn, reveals something about you? Are you OK with that? I think on a certain level we do realize that who we choose to surround ourselves with does reveal parts of who we are. That’s why we choose certain groups of people, after all, right?

What if there is something about you, that you’ve decided not to share, that is somehow unearthed by information only obtained by groups you’re a fan of on Facebook, or say groups friends of yours are fans of?

The ABC article by Ki Mae Heussner, ‘Gaydaron Facebook: Can Your Friends Reveal Sexual Orientation? addresses the study done by two MIT students, taking a class in online ethics and law, who wanted to know what information gets discovered about people, indirectly, by looking at what their friends are revealing.

The students, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree, wanted to see if the gender and sexual orientation of a person’s friends could reveal that person’s own orientation, hence the name of ‘Gaydar.’

‘It’s just one example of how information could be inadvertently shared. It does highlight risks out there.’ (Carter Jernigan)

As we know, not much is private anymore. Just about anything can be found online. This is why social media is both: great and scary; Scary because it’s so easy to get careless. I think we’ve all heard the stories about potential employers doing background checks and finding out things about someone (not previously available before the internet) and then that person doesn’t get hired.

Remember Obama’s speechwriter’s Facebook pictures taken of him with a cardboard cutout of Hilary Clinton, groping her chest, while a friend holds a bottle of beer to her mouth? I believe he kept his job but nobody wants what was probably totally innocent at the time, to negatively affect their future.

MIT computer science professor Hal Abelson, who taught Jernigan and Mistree (who have now graduated) agrees that one’s online presences isn’t just about them and their profile:

‘The point is when the information is so interconnected, information about me isn’t just about me,’ he said.

Huessner goes on to write:

Even if a user goes to great pains to withhold personal information (by changing default settings, refusing to post political or religious affiliations or sexual orientation, or refraining from posting photos), he said information on a friend’s page — or even just the friend list itself — could lead others to make assumptions or draw inferences.

For the intricacies of how the study was done, go here.

The article, citing another study by another MIT professor, Murat Kantarcioglu, with a former student who now actually works for Facebook, published results in 2007 where they analyzed over 167,000 profiles in the Dallas/Ft Worth area in an effort to predict political affiliation.

More disturbing is the possibility that some companies could take penalizing people for their behavior one step farther.

‘The next step is integrating information on social networks with other data streams, such as medical records, credit card information or search engine histories,’ Kantarcioglu said. Though it’s far-fetched now, he said in the future, insurance companies could even analyze social networks to predict health risks.

Understandably, this is disturbing to even consider as a possibility, even if far-fetched. I still think it highlights that an online presence can serve to both benefit and hurt if not managed appropriately. Just keep this in mind when firing up new social media accounts. It is easy to reveal too much about ourselves (I’m sure I have) and not realize that, down the road, it might come back to bite us (I’m sure it will…).

Yes, we should have the freedom to be who we are. So should our friends! The truth is we don’t really because humans are judging animals. We either agree with certain behaviors or we don’t. So just keep in mind that who you choose to affiliate with and what they say (does a certain recent political campaign ring any bells on how this can get out of control come to mind?) could haunt you in the future.

Just be careful out there but still have fun! It is your (one) life to live and as they say “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” Even if that makes no sense, I’m leaving it!

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