A Flaw in Facebook's Privacy: The Facebook Peer Group Effect

Earlier this week I noticed that one of my friends had made their Facebook profile photos no longer visible. I wasn’t sure if this was because they had put me on a restricted friend list or if they had simply removed their profile photos. I awkwardly asked my friend why I had been blocked from viewing his photos and he said that he blocked everybody so his boss wouldn’t see his less professional photographs. Unfortunately my friend didn’t understand the power of Facebook’s custom privacy settings.

Within a day or two, that same friend had been tagged in another photo which ultimately made it to my news feed. I immediately wondered why I was able to view a photo despite that individual’s effort to block his friends from viewing photos he had been tagged in. The reason it appeared in my news feed was that I share a number of friends in common with that individual and since multiple friends had been tagged in that album, I could see all the photos.

What if my friend had been tagged in a compromising situation though? Personally, I’m not going to judge this individual since I’ve known him since my childhood. Additionally, the photo that showed up in the feed showed him in a professional environment. What if he had been out partying though and I had been his boss? There’s the potential that a boss is connected to all of their subordinates. In turn any photos that multiple subordinates are tagged in would immediately show up in the news feed of the boss.

If those individuals were out partying and my friend was tagged in a compromising photo there is a chance that his boss could see the photo despite all of his privacy efforts. The reason is that all of his friends didn’t set the same privacy settings as my friend. I’ll call this the “Facebook peer group effect”. If you are connected to a group of individuals and your boss, a parent, or some other authoritative figure is also connected to that peer group, there is a good chance that a compromising photo of yourself will eventually make it into the feed.

Unfortunately there is nothing you can do about it. All you can do is end your “friendships” with the specific peer group that tags you in photos and hopefully they will never tag you again. The even better alternative is to not place yourself in compromising positions. This is the new Facebook reality and it’s something that we are forced to consider on a daily basis.

The question that quickly arises is “can you protect people from themselves on Facebook?” While you can strive to portray a certain image on Facebook, there is a chance that you end up exposed despite all of your efforts to protect yourself. If two people have a large number of shared contacts, there is a good chance that they will be able to see many of each others’ photos despite custom privacy settings aimed at preventing such things.

Have you been tagged in a compromising Facebook photo? Is there a way to completely prevent this from happening? Is this a downside of the Facebook reality?