When the Most Personal Secrets Get Outed on Facebook

The Wall Street Journal

One evening last fall, the president of the Queer Chorus, a choir group she had recently joined, inadvertently exposed Ms. Duncan’s sexuality to her nearly 200 Facebook friends, including her father, by adding her to a Facebook Inc. discussion group. That night, Ms. Duncan’s father left vitriolic messages on her phone, demanding she renounce same-sex relationships, she says, and threatening to sever family ties.

The 22-year-old cried all night on a friend’s couch. “I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach with a bat,” she says.

Soon, she learned that another choir member, Taylor McCormick, had been outed the very same way, upsetting his world as well.

The president of the chorus, a student organization at the University of Texas campus here, had added Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick to the choir’s Facebook group. The president didn’t know the software would automatically tell their Facebook friends that they were now members of the chorus.

The two students were casualties of a privacy loophole on Facebook—the fact that anyone can be added to a group by a friend without their approval. As a result, the two lost control over their secrets, even though both were sophisticated users who had attempted to use Facebook’s privacy settings to shield some of their activities from their parents.

“Our hearts go out to these young people,” says Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes. “Their unfortunate experience reminds us that we must continue our work to empower and educate users about our robust privacy controls.”

In the era of social networks like Facebook and Google Inc.’s Google+, companies that catalog people’s activities for a profit routinely share, store and broadcast everyday details of people’s lives. This creates a challenge for individuals navigating the personal-data economy: how to keep anything private in an era when it is difficult to predict where your information will end up.

Many people have been stung by accidentally revealing secrets online that were easier kept in the past. In Quebec, Canada, in 2009, Nathalie Blanchard lost her disability-insurance benefits for depression after she posted photos on Facebook showing her having fun at the beach and at a nightclub with male exotic dancers. After seeing the photos, her insurer, Manulife Financial, hired a private investigator and asked a doctor to re-evaluate her diagnosis, according to Ms. Blanchard’s lawyer.

Ms. Blanchard didn’t realize her photos were visible to the public, according to the lawyer, who added that depressed people often try to disguise their illness to family and friends. Ms. Blanchard sued to have her benefits reinstated. The matter was settled out of court.

A Manulife spokeswoman declined to discuss the case, saying “we would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook.”

Losing control online is more than a technology problem—it’s a sociological turning point. For much of human history, personal information spread slowly, person-to-person if at all.

The Facebook era, however, makes it possible to disclose private matters to wide populations, intentionally or not. Personal worlds that previously could be partitioned—work, family, friendships, matters of sexuality—become harder to keep apart. One solution, staying off Facebook, has become harder to do as it reaches a billion people around the world.

Facebook is committed to the principle of one identity for its users. It has shut down accounts of people who use pseudonyms and multiple accounts, including those of dissidents and protesters in China and Egypt. The company says its commitment to “real names” makes the site safer for users. It is also at the core of the service they sell to advertisers, namely, access to the real you.

Closeted gays and lesbians face particular challenges in controlling their images online, given that friends, family and enemies have the ability to expose them.

In Austin, Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick, 21, deliberately tried to stay in the closet with their parents, even as they stepped out on campus. Ms. Duncan’s parents home-schooled her and raised her in Newton, N.C., where the family attended a fundamentalist church. Now a linguistics student, she told her best friend in the summer of 2011 that she might be gay.

As she struggled with her sexuality, she adjusted her Facebook privacy settings to hide any hint of it from her father, whom she had helped sign up for Facebook. “Once I had my Facebook settings set, I knew—or thought I knew—there wasn’t any problem,” she says.

Mr. McCormick, studying to become a pharmacist, came out in July 2011 to his mother in his hometown of Blanco, Texas, but not to his father, whom Mr. McCormick describes as a member of a conservative church that teaches homosexuality is sin.

He set Facebook controls for what he calls a “privacy lockdown” on posts that his father, in San Antonio, could see. “We have the one big secret when we’re young,” he says. “I knew not everyone was going to be accepting.”

UT Austin was more accepting. As many university campuses have for years, it offered a safe space for young people to come out without parents knowing. Last fall, Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick attended the first rehearsal for the Queer Chorus, a group for gay, lesbian and transgender students and their allies.

“This is a great place to find yourself as a queer person,” says the chorus’s then-president, Christopher Acosta. The group is known for renditions of pop songs in which it sometimes changes the gender of pronouns. Ms. Duncan agreed to play piano and sing alto. Mr. McCormick, who has a slight frame, surprised the chorus with his deep bass.

At the rehearsal, on Sept. 8, Mr. Acosta asked if any members weren’t on the chorus’s Facebook group, where rehearsals would be planned. Mr. McCormick and Ms. Duncan said they weren’t.

When Joining a ‘Group’ Reveals Too Much

How Facebook Shares Users’ Memberships With Their Friends Online

  • Someone creates a ‘group’ on Facebook around a shared interest or activity.
  • If the group’s creator sets it to be ‘open,’ other Facebook users can see its activities.
  • The creator has the ability to add his or her Facebook friends to the group.
  • Getting added generates a notice that can appear on their friends’ Facebook pages—alerting others to their membership.
  • People added to a group this way have the option to leave, but are first added by default.

That night, Mr. Acosta turned on his MacBook Pro and added the two new members to the chorus Facebook group. Facebook, then and now, offers three options for this sort of group: “secret” (membership and discussions hidden to nonmembers), “closed” (anybody can see the group and its members, but only members see posts), and “open” (membership and content both public).

Mr. Acosta had chosen open. “I was so gung-ho about the chorus being unashamedly loud and proud,” he says.

But there was a trade-off he says he didn’t know about. When he added Ms. Duncan, which didn’t require her prior online consent, Facebook posted a note to her all friends, including her father, telling them that she had joined the Queer Chorus.

When Mr. Acosta pushed the button, Facebook allowed him to override the intent of the individual privacy settings Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick had used to hide posts from their fathers. Facebook’s online help center explains that open groups, as well as closed groups, are visible to the public and will publish notification to users’ friends. But Facebook doesn’t allow users to approve before a friend adds them to a group, or to hide their addition from friends.

After being contacted by The Wall Street Journal, Facebook adjusted the language in its online Help Center to explain situations, like the one that arose with Queer Chorus, in which friends can see that people have joined groups.

Facebook also added a link to this new explanation directly from the screen where users create groups.

“I was figuring out the rules by trial and error,” says Mr. Acosta.

A few hours later, Ms. Duncan’s father began leaving her angry voice mails, according to Ms. Duncan and a friend who was present.

“No no no no no no no,” Ms. Duncan recalls telling a friend. “I have him hidden from my updates, but he saw this,” she said. “He saw it.”

Ms. Duncan’s father didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

Her father called repeatedly that night, she says, and when they spoke, he threatened to stop paying her car insurance. He told her to go on Facebook and renounce the chorus and gay lifestyles.

On his Facebook page, he wrote two days later: “To all you queers. Go back to your holes and wait for GOD,” according to text provided by Ms. Duncan. “Hell awaits you pervert. Good luck singing there.”

Ms. Duncan says she fell into depression for weeks. “I couldn’t function,” she says. “I would be in class and not hear a word anyone was saying.”

Mr. McCormick’s mother phoned him the night his name joined the Queer Chorus group. “She said, ‘S—has hit the fan…Your dad has found out.’ I asked how,” Mr. McCormick recalled, “and she said it was all over Facebook.”

His father didn’t talk to his son for three weeks, the younger Mr. McCormick says. “He just dropped off the face of my earth.”

Mr. McCormick’s father declined to participate in this article.

Privacy critics including the American Civil Liberties Union say Facebook has slowly shifted the defaults on its software to reveal more information about people to the public and to Facebook’s corporate partners.

“Users are often unaware of the extent to which their information is available,” says Chris Conley, technology and civil-liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “And if sensitive info is released, it is often impossible to put the cat back in the bag.”

Facebook executives say that they have added increasingly more privacy controls, because that encourages people to share. “It is all about making it easier to share with exactly who you want and never be surprised about who sees something,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s vice president of product, in an interview in August 2011 as the site unveiled new privacy controls. Facebook declined to make Mr. Cox available for this article.

Still, privacy advocates say control loopholes remain where friends can disclose information about other users. Facebook users, for example, can’t take down photos of them posted by others.
greater concern, they say, is that many people don’t know how to use Facebook’s privacy controls. A survey conducted in the spring of 2011 for the Pew Research Center found that U.S. social-network users were becoming more active in controlling their online identities by taking steps like deleting comments posted by others. Still, about half reported some difficulty in managing privacy controls.

This past September, the National Football League pulled referee Brian Stropolo from a game between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers after ESPN found a photo of Mr. Stropolo wearing a Saints jacket and cap that he had posted on Facebook.

It remains unclear whether the photo was intended to be public or private.

An NFL spokesman said, “I don’t believe you will see him back on the field.” The NFL declined to make Mr. Stropolo available.

Privacy researchers say that increasing privacy settings may actually produce what they call an “illusion of control” for social-network users. In a series of experiments in 2010, Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor Alessandro Acquisti found that offering people more privacy settings generated “some form of overconfidence that, paradoxically, makes people overshare more,” he says.

Allison Palmer, vice president of campaigns and programs at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says her organization is helping Facebook to develop resources for gay users to help them understand how best to maintain safety and privacy on the site.

“Facebook is one of the few tech companies to make this a priority,” she says.

Mr. Acosta, the choir president, says he should have been sensitive to the risk of online outings. His parents learned he was gay when, in high school, he sent an email saying so that accidentally landed in his father’s in-box.

Today, he says, his parents accept his sexuality. So before creating his Facebook group, he didn’t think about the likelihood of less-accepting parents on Facebook.

“I didn’t put myself in that mind-set,” he says. “I do take some responsibility.”

Some young gay people do, in fact, choose Facebook as a forum for their official comings-out, when they change their Facebook settings to publicly say, “Interested In: Men” or “Interested In: Women.” For many young Americans, sexuality can be confidential but no longer a shameful subject. Sites like Facebook give them an opportunity to claim their sexuality and find community.

For gays, social media “offers both resources and risks,” says C.J. Pascoe, a Colorado College sociology professor who studies the role of new media in teen sexuality. “In a physical space, you can be in charge of the audiences around you. But in an online space, you have to be prepared for the reality that, at any given moment, they could converge without your control.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has long posited that the capability to share information will change how we groom our identities. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he said in an interview for David Kirkpatrick’s 2010 book, “The Facebook Effect.” Facebook users have “one identity,” he said.

Facebook declined to make Mr. Zuckerberg available.

Days after their outings, Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick met at the campus gender-and-sexuality center, which provides counseling. On a couch, they swapped tales. “I remember I was miserable and said, ‘Facebook decided to tell my dad that I was gay,’ ” she says. “He looked at me and said, ‘Oh really, you too?'”

Mr. McCormick’s mother, Monica McCormick, meanwhile, was worried how the Facebook disclosure might affect her business selling insurance. “Every kid in this town now knows,” she says. “I am sure that I have lost clients, but they are not going to tell you why. That is living in a small town.”

Mr. McCormick and his father eventually talked about his sexuality over an awkward lunch at a burger joint and haven’t discussed it much since. But Mr. McCormick feels more open and proud about his sexuality. He changed his Facebook profile to “Interested In: Men.”

After Ms. Duncan’s Sept. 8 outing, she went through long periods of not speaking with her father.

For a while, Ms. Duncan’s mother moved into her daughter’s apartment with her. “I wanted to be with her,” says her mother, who is also named Bobbi. “This was something that I thought her father had crossed the line over, and I could not agree with him.”

Speaking of Mr. Duncan, she says: “The big deal for him was that it was posted and that all his friends and all his family saw it.”

The younger Ms. Duncan says she tried to build bridges with her father around the year-end holidays. But the arguments persisted.

“I finally realized I don’t need this problem in my life anymore,” she says. “I don’t think he is evil, he is just incredibly misguided.”

She stopped returning her dad’s calls in May.

She and Mr. McCormick remain in the chorus. Mr. Acosta changed the Facebook group to “secret” and the chorus established online-privacy guidelines.

Today, Ms. Duncan has her first girlfriend. “I am in a really good place,” she says, but wouldn’t want anybody to have her experience. “I blame Facebook,” she says. “It shouldn’t be somebody else’s choice what people see of me.”

Comments are closed.