On social media, you really never know who’s watching what you post. Despite this, many social media users have become cavalier with the information that they share online.
The availability of this information can lead to problems with friends, family members, and companies you didn’t even know were watching.
Companies want to sell, and they want to sell to you. The best way for them to turn you into a loyal customer is to gather as much information as possible about who you are, where you go, and what you like.
Enter your social media profiles.
Even just your basic information — such as your gender, name, and age — is ideal for targeted advertising. Add a few public images, some geo-linked Instagram posts, and an opinionated Twitter feed, and companies hit a goldmine of opportunity.
Who Is Watching You?
If you want to play it safe, assume everyone could be watching anything you post online. But if that feels a bit restrictive, you should know that these seven industries are definitely paying attention.
Hotels put a lot of effort into impressing customers so they can gain exposure through word of mouth. Online, they use a technique called geofencing to collect information, allowing them to see every public post created within a set geographical area.
Using these posts from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, hotel managers can reach out in targeted ways to individual guests. For example, they may send a free room upgrade to a couple celebrating an anniversary, or offer a free spa experience to someone who receives a lot of social media exposure.
Hotels also use social media to reach out to people who mention the hotel chain (positively or negatively) in their posts. This starts a one-on-one conversation — and research shows a direct link to future bookings.
This might seem like a win-win for everyone involved, but it’s worth considering. Is a massage really worth being used for free advertising without your knowledge?
2. Standardized Testing Companies
In 2015 a New Jersey superintendent learned that Pearson (the standardized testing company responsible for numerous tests performed across the world) was actively monitoring student social media use.
Pearson reached out to the superintendent out of concern that a student shared a test question over Twitter (this was later proven to be false). Why were they monitoring student social media feeds in the first place, though? Especially given that this situation involves minors, it’s more than a little unexpected and concerning.
3. Insurance Companies
Insurance companies are known for being difficult to navigate. Check the wrong box on a form or use the wrong phrase in a conversation, and your claim gets denied. After all, if a piece of evidence can save your insurance company money, they’re going to make sure they use it.
Your social media profiles can act as that evidence (although this may vary slightly based on local laws). Even vague captions about your daily activities can be used as “proof” in contentious claims.
Many times this is done to prevent insurance fraud. Insurers use social media to see if someone claiming a serious injury is out running a marathon, or if a “stolen” object appears in a photograph.
But it can also be used less directly. For example, if someone posts an Instagram of reckless driving behavior, they may see consequences reflected in their insurance rates. As seen in the video above, something as simple as a photo of a beer can may have serious implications.
Looking to move to a new place? You might want to do a quick scan of your public social media profiles first.
Especially in areas with competitive rental markets, landlords have the upper hand in rental decisions. The amount of information you provide on the average rental application (full name, date of birth, current address, current occupation) is often more than enough to locate you on social media.
If you are looking to rent, it’s worth examining your profile from a landlord’s perspective. Maybe hide any wild house party photos and stop complaining about being broke on Twitter. These simple posts can be pretty illuminating for a landlord — and even if it’s not a true representation of your life, it could still cost you the contract.
Many students don’t realize that their online behaviors can have significant repercussions in their offline lives. Universities have a lot riding on the reputations of their students, and they aren’t afraid to cut ties when necessary.
It’s not uncommon for students to post photos that involve illegal activity (such as underage drinking), harassment, or sexual content online. With the popularity of geofilters, geotagging, and university-specific hashtags, universities are regularly associated with these activities — whether or not the students realize it.
Much of this monitoring comes from the university itself, but it can also come from whistleblowers within the student community. Other students may forward screenshots of private posts to administration, and offensive posts with angry commentary often go viral.
When a situation like this occurs, universities can react in a number of different ways to protect their brand. However, these social media posts (whether intended for private conversations or not) can also result in suspensions, expulsions, and/or police involvement.
6. Potential Employers
If you are currently on the job market, your social media profiles need to be squeaky clean.
It’s a good idea to Google your full name (along with any identifying information that you provide on your resume and cover letter). See what results show up, and edit your social media accordingly.
This level of caution shouldn’t necessarily end when you get a job. Much like students can lose their place at university, employees can also land in hot water due to an online mistake. It’s always a good idea to keep your private profiles as secure as possible, and to use public social media profiles with caution.
In our connected world, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between your public and private life. As a rule of thumb, though, if you wouldn’t want your boss to read a post, don’t put it online. It’s really as simple as that.
7. The Police
To be clear, it’s not an inherently bad thing for the police to use social media. After all, crime takes place on social media and there’s no other way to investigate it! However, it’s still important to critically examine the way that police forces use social media to investigate and prosecute crime.
For example, social media can be a useful way to gather evidence surrounding a crime. This is especially true for public social media posts in an environment where a crime occurred. For example, if you took a picture of a crime scene minutes before a theft, your post could help to provide important contextual detail.
Many police forces also see improvement in their community relationships after developing a social media presence. They are able to interact with members of the community in real time by directly addressing concerns that they see trending in their local area.
But are other users’ photos and captions an accurate or complete summary of events? When do social media conversations cross the line into enticing someone to commit a crime? How do you ensure that police conduct social media investigations with a thorough understanding of social media culture? It’s important to consider all of these questions (and more) as police forces continue to develop their social media strategies.
Is This Approach to Gathering Information Ethical?
Technically, there isn’t anything illegal about the majority of the approaches on this list. But, much like someone rummaging through your trash or closely examining your personal belongings, companies spying on your social media posts just feels wrong.
Put in the context of ethics, however, the answer is a little more blurry. Many internet users believe that once something’s online, it’s fair game. This line of reasoning quickly leads to doxing, viral memes, cruel jokes, and cyberstalking.
However, most of your life happens in the public eye. People can easily see you walk into your home, buy groceries, or accidentally embarrass yourself in public.
Even though you put this information out there, the ethical norms of our society definitely don’t encourage an advertising analyst following someone around their neighborhood or grocery store.
In my mind, there shouldn’t be a distinction between information you share online and the information you share offline. Ethically, your life shouldn’t be a series of data points for corporations to consume at their own will, without consequence.
Sadly, a discussion of ethics is almost besides the point.
The fact of the matter is that there are people out there who do believe that anything on the internet is fair game — and, at the moment, it’s impossible to stop them. Even when something actually is a cyber crime, the damage is often done long before the guilty party is brought to justice.
Protect Your Personal Information Online
It’s definitely unsettling to know that everything you post on your personal pages can affect your life in such serious ways. Every individual will have a different level of comfort with how private their social media pages are. It’s okay to decide to continue sharing your posts and photos publicly, just as long as you are aware of who, exactly, could be watching you.
If you’re worried about your online presence after realizing what companies can learn about you from your social media posts, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Think before you post. No matter how good your security settings are, friends can always take a screenshot of photos, videos, or text you post online.
- Privacy settings are there for a reason. Even if they aren’t completely fail-safe, privacy settings are still better than totally public access to your private social media pages! Keep anything even slightly edgy or sensitive locked away behind as many safety settings as possible. Public profiles should be free of nearly all identifying information and used with caution.
- Use social media features wisely. Tagging a location, using a fun hashtag, or using a “sign in with Facebook” option may seem fun or easy at the time. However, consider how these actions may deliver your information directly to companies who will use it for their own gain.
Do you know about another industry that follows social media posts to gain insider information? How do you protect your posts? Let me know in the comments!