Social Media Safety Skills


It's risky being a journalist on social media these days. How can we protect our safety, our reputations, our careers, and our publications? On Jan. 25, the Online News Association Local Slack channel hosted a chat in which journalists looked at tips from experts and shared our insights about what works. The chat featured a set of intro-to-intermediate-level resources that journalists can use to manage their privacy, handle online debates, and reduce web harassment. ONA Western New England‘s Kat Friedrich hosted the chat.

What is the most important thing reporters who want to use social media safely should know?

Trust your instincts about who is trustworthy and who is untrustworthy. Also, trust your instincts about how to protect yourself.

This advice comes from the book The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, which was published by a law enforcement expert.

Your observations and instincts will protect you online. This is very important.

For example, if someone is in a position of influence and you think you ought to attempt to impress them by adding them on social media, but your instincts and observations say that they will attempt to get you fired if you interact, trust your gut and maintain your distance.

What groundwork should journalists set up to have good rapport with their audiences, which is crucial to online safety?

First, you need to know the following stakeholders:

  • your employer
  • your funders
  • your audiences
  • your critics
  • your competitors

You need to know what piques their curiosity, what controversies they find engaging, what topics annoy or bore them, and how you can establish credibility.

You also need to know the social media policies your employers or clients already have established. In addition, you need to know their diversity-related policies. You also need to know their policies about political dialogue and activities.

For your behavior online, establish a baseline that is civil by a mainstream workplace standard.

It is important to stay out of highly controversial discussion forums and conversations that may cause professional emergencies.

Debate selectively. Observing a conversation is fine – it isn’t necessary to chime in. I sometimes observe a debate for a while before I decide whether to assign an article about it.

How can journalists maintain their online reputations so that they are viewed as relatable and credible?

It is a balancing act for journalists to maintain their privacy by using the appropriate work-safe settings and behavior while still having conversational personae.

This results in some of them creating false “plastic” or “clickbait” personae for themselves. Journalists may also avoid online dialogue to prevent themselves from being quoted adversely. All three of these behaviors cause reputation problems.

The first two types of behavior result in journalists being viewed as untrustworthy. The third results in them being viewed as unapproachable.

It’s important to not attempt to be a “plastic journalist” who is whoever your employer wants you to be. People will find out how you identify on social media, so it’s hard to live a double life these days. If you are pretending to be someone you aren’t, people will notice.

You should expect that curious people to sniff around online to find out who you are and decide whether they like you. They may do a bot search about you, for example. People may also do a variety of other searches on you including public-records retrieval, web-archive lookups, or dark-web searches.

Robert Hernandez, while teaching a course on social media for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas last year, recommended being aware that since any social media post may be shared via pasting, you should assume any post of yours might be seen by your supervisor or competitors.

It’s also important not to try to be a “clickbait journalist” and make your entire social media presence an attempt to get attention. This will cost you respect and credibility with many people, including people who want to get to know you well.

If you have a clickbait persona, people may mistrust you or may become hostile followers. There are some people online who have massive follower lists but are often disliked by their readers. It’s better to have a somewhat shorter list of people who actually support you and/or would hire you than a longer list of people who do not view your work positively.

You should consider how to optimize your level of self-promotion so that it is appropriate for your career goals and will work for your employers.

Some reporters tend to lock down most or all of their personal views and ideas on social media and avoid dialogue. However, this makes them seem unapproachable and makes it hard for them to network.

Rather than avoiding conversation altogether, it’s better to dialogue selectively, focusing on specific people and audiences.

Setting up social media action lists can simplify posting. These lists can include:

  • Subjects to discuss
  • Topics to avoid
  • Audiences to reach

I try to be very efficient and targeted in my use of social media. There are specific lists that I focus on. I also connect with specific communities.

What specific challenges do Facebook and LinkedIn pose?

There are differing viewpoints in circulation about how journalists should use Facebook. Some people say journalists should act work-centric, but that can discourage people they know socially from chatting. I am trying to strike a balance where I am occasionally talking about work but am writing for my social circle.

Facebook tends to lull its users into sharing more personal and casual information than they might otherwise discuss. This sometimes creates issues when professional groups are dialoguing there. Make sure to un-tag yourself or remove yourself when posts may cause issues.

Be careful about photos; they shape one’s image extensively. People take photos of journalists from time to time. They snap pictures at nightclubs very often, for example. They also photograph people at many other places, including gyms, without asking first. It’s best to not post alcohol-related photos online. Paying attention to how one looks online and offline is important throughout the field.

When people have access to your social media, especially on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, they can harvest a lot of information, even if you customize your settings - which you should do! For example, they can see if a controversial person on your friends list tags you in a public post or comments on an item.

On LinkedIn, people on your list can see whatever posts you respond to; they can also download your contact information.

It’s fine to not reciprocate an add request or to block someone on social media from time to time.

What consequences can happen when journalists RSVP to events, attend conferences, or join organizations?

For safety reasons, especially if you are concerned about stalking or violence, it can be important to avoid sharing your street address and location. You can turn off your location setting on your phone’s settings menu. Also, avoid checking in. Only RSVP online if an RSVP is required for registration for an event.

Human resources departments, law enforcement professionals, and various experienced hackers can dig up lists of people who RSVP to events that are controversial. They can also dig up membership lists from controversial organizations.

This means that you should be aware that your previous memberships, signed petitions, and event attendance may be mentioned after the fact.

You can also do a strategic RSVP to indicate support for an organization or community.

What should journalists do if they are being attacked online?

This chat did not cover mass doxing or identity theft; there are resources in our list below that relate to them.

If you observe that a person or group is attacking you, try to understand what their motive is. Then respond in a way that neutralizes their behavior while keeping a professional approach.

You can respond very assertively if needed, but you should try not to respond aggressively. Try to assert boundaries clearly and keep a cool head when you respond.

If you respond appropriately and assertively, that is good for your reputation.

You can report people’s behavior to their supervisors, law enforcement, website administrators, your supervisor, human resources, etc. if needed.

After you have responded to an attack, assess what the results are (to the extent you can). Try to figure out if you have any reputation cleanups to do.

How can journalists use social media to clear their reputations?

Social media is an excellent avenue for reputation cleanups.

You can publicize posts, tag people, message them… the possibilities are endless.

You can also do reputation cleanup posts on forums or social networks.

For example, you can edit your meetup profiles to communicate reputation-related information.

You can also venture onto an email list and do a reputation cleanup.

Or you can ask a friend to post a comment about you to a list or on a forum.

Important web resources to use

Here is a list of tech tips that I put together based on advice from Crash Override and Security in a Box. I highly recommend experimenting with the settings and software on the list.

About the author

Kat Friedrich is a news editor who is originally from Chicago, lives in Vermont, has a graduate degree in Science and Environmental Journalism, and has worked as a mechanical engineer. The lively group of motivated students in her newsroom at Yale University produces media for Clean Energy Finance Forum and Conservation Finance Network. They are experimenting with the latest innovations in online media, solutions journalism, and environmental communication. She cofounded the Western New England chapter of Online News Association.

Image: Firstlisting.