Are Private Groups Really Private?

It’s that time of year again—the first week of a brand new fall semester that screams ‘fresh start.’ Whether you’re sporting a brand new laptop for the year, or flaunting a new set of kicks (is that what the kids are still calling it these days?), the new school year always offers every student the opportunity to expand their knowledge, make some new friends, and pump up that GPA.

A helpful online tool that can facilitate all of the above comes in the form a slick and simple social media tool that many readers might already be a part of: the private Facebook group. When I began my master’s degree at UBC, my classmates and I were encouraged to rendezvous on Facebook. What followed is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking facets of my online presence: a private group that offers the opportunity for my cohorts and I to engage with one another without the scrutiny of professors, share ridiculous inside jokes, and even remind ourselves about upcoming assignments and offer help and tips. New posts are a notification that I always look forward to.

The private Facebook group can be a great tool for discussion between classmates, and even allows an easy way to organize casual hang-outs or weekend ragers. However, much like anything we do online nowadays, it’s never a bad bet to act with a certain degree of caution. After all, the tool does have a few weak links that might make you wonder if the groups really are private.

Facebook groups don’t have a traditional administrator—the person who creates them is the ‘administrator’, however they aren’t able to reject or accept new members before they can join. Any group member can add people to the group, without the discretion of the administrator. You can end up sharing your content with total strangers.

The only true way to protect your privacy in an online group is to routinely check the groups you belong to an all of their members. Ensure that you trust each group member, and it’s probably a good idea to make sure that whatever you share won’t tarnish your reputation if the information was made public.

Just last year, a private group of male Dalhousie dentistry students thought they were in the clear when they shared posts that suggested violence against their female cohorts. They may have felt comfortable sharing such remarks in a closed group, but a weak link in the chain (a student who was obviously disgusted by the posts) screen grabbed the posts and shared them with the CBC. In a few short moments, the posts were everywhere—online, TV, and the radio—and the university investigated the students shortly thereafter. It’s unknown whether they’ll ever be able to practice dentistry once they finish their education.

So please, don’t be like the Dalhousie dentistry students. Make sure that when you use this immensely useful social media tool that you don’t litter it with obscenities that might tarnish your name. Be responsible. Think before you ink.