"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
April 10, 2014
Is Information on Facebook Private?
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

I teach Primary. Last week, one of the other teachers was absent for about the fourth week in a row. The Primary president saw that she was absent, sighed, and proceeded to tell me some very personal and unflattering information about the sister that explained her absence.

I must have looked shocked, because the president hastened to add that the sister herself had put all of this information on Facebook.

I’m not this sister’s friend on Facebook, so I’m sure she did not want this information shared with me. But I don’t have a Facebook account, and I’m not sure how it works.

Was the Primary president out of line?

Answer:

I think this situation made you uncomfortable for good reason, but not because the unflattering information about this sister came from Facebook, and not because you are not her friend on Facebook.

It is generally accepted that posting information on Facebook makes that information public. A person who wants to keep information private or among his close friends will not post it on Facebook. Indeed, the point of Facebook is to post things you want everyone to know.

Although a person might use privacy settings to restrict access to his posts to his “friends,” most of these “friends” are not actual, close friends. They are simply people the user knows. Again, the point is to spread information, not contain it.

In your case, the Primary president did not share private information with you or betray this sister’s trust by repeating what the sister had posted on Facebook. She merely relayed to you information the sister herself had made public.

If you are perplexed as to why a person would disseminate unflattering information about himself on Facebook (or anywhere else), you are not alone. The willingness of people to portray themselves online as petty, vulgar or unhappily married is a mystery to me. If you are going to be any of those things, I suggest doing it in private.

Still, even though the information was public, I don’t think it was wise of the Primary president to tell you about it, for three reasons.

First, it is unkind to spread or discuss unflattering information about another person, even if you believe the information is widely known. Spreading unkind information about a person is gossip. And no good comes from ward members gossiping about each other.

Gossip builds the wrong kind of relationships among ward members. Kind and trusting friendships cannot develop when the parties build their relationship by trading unkind gossip about other people. Gossip divides wards into factions and exacerbates disagreements. It is neither uplifting nor productive to sit around talking about other people. Again, this is true whether or not the information is widely known.

Second, it was not discreet. To be discreet is to show good judgment about what you do and do not say. It is to know when to remain silent. It is essential to be discreet if you wish to gain and maintain the confidence of other people — they need to know you will not blab their personal business to the world.

A discreet person does not want to be the source of gossip or the means of spreading it. So even if the sister in your ward doesn’t care if everyone knows her business, a discreet person would not have mentioned it to you.

All Church members should develop discretion. In the daily course of service, home and visiting teaching, socializing and managing Church programs, members often come to know confidential information about each other.

Keeping that information confidential is a matter of integrity. It is wrong to use it to ingratiate oneself with a social group or to make oneself appear “in the know.” And when the information does need to be relayed to the Bishop or an auxiliary president, it should be communicated in a way that keeps it confidential.

In your case, instead of explaining to you where the absent sister was, the Primary president should have said nothing. If she didn’t think you knew, she shouldn’t have been the one to tell you. If she thought you already knew, there was no need to discuss it.

If you had asked, she should have said something like, “She’s not here today,” and changed the subject. If she had serious, substantiated concerns about the sister’s behavior, she should have spoken to the Bishop, not to you.

Third, you can’t believe everything you read on Facebook. For one, it is entirely one-sided. And posts only give you a snapshot of what may be an ongoing situation. This is why people sometimes preface a comment with, “Well, she said on Facebook that....” It is understood that what a person has posted on Facebook in the past might not be accurate now, or might only be part of the real story.

Further, some people have the unfortunate habit of posting things when they are angry, frustrated or upset. Angry posts usually magnify or overstate negative feelings. And important information may be omitted. Also, imprecise grammar, spelling, word choice and punctuation can result in misunderstandings.

Finally, I think your reaction to the Primary president’s revelations was the right one. By looking shocked, you effectively communicated (a) that you did not already know the information and (b) she should not be telling you about it.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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