Fairfax case shows dangers of Facebook journalism: social media users beware

Social media should not be used by journalists to verify online identity. Daniel Avauz/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Australians’ love of social media, which includes 11.3 million Facebook users, has been a haven for social networking companies, advertisers, and increasingly journalists. But Fairfax’s recent publication of a photo of a young man misidentified as Numan Haider shows how important it is to protect the way your data is used.

The shooting of Haider, who allegedly stabbed two police officers in Endeavour Hills in Victoria, was widely reported by all media outlets. In the 24/7 world of print and online media, being first with information is key. And so Fairfax Media published photos of this man on its websites and on the front pages of The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times very soon after the incident occurred.

Unfortunately, they got it wrong. The pictures they obtained when surfing Facebook were actually of 19-year old Abu Bakar Alam, a person with no connection to the accused or the incident. Editor of The Age, Andrew Holden, told 3AW there was an error in the verification process, when staff were sourcing photos from Facebook.

Fairfax “unreservedly” apologised for mistakenly publishing these pictures:

“One of the photographs run on this website, tablet and Fairfax papers in relation to the death of Numan Haider was published in error. The young man in a suit was not Mr Haider, and we unreservedly apologise to him for the error. The young man has no connection whatsoever with any extremist or terrorist group and we deeply regret any such inference arising from the publication of the photograph. The picture has been withdrawn from circulation.”

A similarly worded apology appeared on page three of the print editions, which read in part: “We are reviewing and changing our internal processes to ensure such a mistake is not repeated.”

But what is the value of an apology when the internet never forgets? Despite Fairfax deleting the image from its websites, the incorrectly tagged photo of Abu Bakar Alam can still be found online via a simple Google search. If a web page has been deleted or removed by its publisher, you can often still find it using one of the internet’s many caching services.

A cached page is a snapshot or a version of a web page saved at a specific time and stored by a web server as a backup copy. For example, as Google’s search engine crawls the web, it caches versions of pages as it goes. The Wayback Machine does a similar thing, archiving web pages, many of which have been deleted or removed many years ago.

Facebook is getting more serious about informing users about its privacy settings. Todd Barnard/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Protecting privacy

It’s clear media outlets need to be much more responsible and fact check more rigorously before publication. Journalists should not be using social media sites to validate, or otherwise, their stories.

There’s no way of knowing a social media site purporting to belong to an individual, actually does belong to that person. Twitter has tried to address this by verifying the user accounts of some prominent people, but unless a complaint is made, social media sites rarely act.

Abu Bakar Alam told the ABC’s Lateline program he never uploaded the engagement party photo used of him by Fairfax Media, and he doesn’t know how they obtained it.

According to the ABC’s Media Watch host Paul Barry on Monday, Fairfax took the photo from a Facebook site of a friend of Numan Haider and “they thought it matched other pictures they had of him. But of course, it did not.”

Potentially, another person who had access to the photo (or was even in it) could have placed this photo on their Facebook page and “tagged” Alam. Facebook now gives users the option of reviewing posts that friends tag users in before they appear on the user’s timeline.

While Australians may be concerned about metadata and post-Snowden revelations of spying, the reality is that social media users give away vast tracks of data and personally identifying information, simply by not implementing the privacy and security controls available on social media sites. This includes information about personal interests, family, friends, location and individual preferences regarding products and services.

Social media users and particularly those on Facebook should regularly check their privacy options and lock them down to the tightest level, ensuring only connections can see posts, photographs and other material. For many years these have been turned off by default, but with growing consumer backlash and new entrants into the market, Facebook is slowly getting serious about informing its users of the various privacy options.

Historically, Facebook ignored privacy, encouraging account holders to share increasing amounts of information. Facebook now has an audience selector tool which can be chosen when users share status updates, photos and other posts. But caution is still required as the tool remembers the audience shared with from the last post, and uses the same audience for subsequent posts, unless the user changes it. For example, if the public sharing option is chosen for one post, the next post will also be public unless changed at the time of the new post.

There are mechanisms to safeguard privacy by using various Facebook menu options, however a user’s profile photo and cover picture always remain public.

As Facebook tells us, always think before you post. Just like anything else you post on the web or send in an email, information you share on Facebook can be copied or re-shared by anyone who can see it.