If You’ve Ever Posted Anything Embarrassing on Facebook, Now Is the Time to Hide It

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 8 2013 7:20 PM

If You’ve Ever Posted Anything Embarrassing on Facebook, Now Is the Time to Hide It

Facebook Graph Search privacy
Going through the privacy settings on your old Facebook posts is annoying, but Graph Search makes it more important than ever

Screenshot courtesy of Facebook

For the past six months, a select group of Facebook users have had a chance to try out the site’s hyped “Graph Search” function. For those unfamiliar with it, Facebook’s Graph Search function is kind of like a regular search function, only more complicated. But the bottom line is that it indexes everyone’s public posts, likes, photos, interests, etc. to make them as easy as possible for everyone else—from friends to exes to cops to advertisers to your boss—to find.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Facebook opened Graph Search to a limited audience earlier this year, but it’s rolling it out to everyone over the next couple of weeks, starting today. So if you were waiting for the right time to go through your privacy settings and hide the embarrassing stuff before the whole world sees it, you can stop waiting. The right time is today.

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Some have called Graph Search a privacy nightmare, because it takes information that was hard to find and makes it easy to find. For instance, if you for some reason hit “like” on the page of radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki three years ago, your name and face might now pop up when someone at the FBI gets the bright idea on a slow day to search Facebook for “people who like Anwar al-Awlaki.” I wrote in January about a London-based prankster who came up with a slew of other provocative examples, some of which are funny and others a little frightening.

If Graph Search is a privacy nightmare, it’s sort of like the kind in which you find yourself out in public with no clothes on. The bad news is that what’s seen can’t be unseen. But the good news is that it won’t happen if you’re already dressed. That is, Graph Search won’t take any information that you had set to private (or "friends-only") and turn it public. So if you don’t want strangers to see your profile’s naughty parts, you can go to your Facebook privacy settings right now and cover them up.

There’s an easy way and a hard way to do this. The (relatively) easy way is to click “limit past posts,” which will turn all of your old posts to “friends only” in a single swoop. But if you want some things to stay public, or to be visible to friends of friends, you’ll need to do it the hard way, which is to click “Use Activity Log” and go through all of your old posts one by one. Oh, and you’ll also want to double-check the privacy settings on your “About” page, which controls who can see the basic information on your profile.

Again, the basics are:

  1. Go to your privacy settings and check who can see your future posts and past posts.
  2. To hide individual posts or likes, click "Use Activity Log" and scroll down through your history, editing the privacy settings for each one as you go.
  3. To check who can see your profile information, go to the About page on your profile and click the "edit" button next to each category.

For those who want more details, Facebook has a couple of videos explaining the process, while Business Insider has a handy step-by-step guide. If it all sounds a little confusing, that’s because it is. But if you care at all about your privacy and aren’t ready to take the ultimate precaution, it’s worth the trouble to spend an hour or two doing it now in order to prevent future humiliation. As a bonus, reviewing your activity log will make you more familiar with how the site’s privacy settings work, so you can be more careful about how you use it in the future. That goes for you, married men who like Ashley Madison. You know who you are—and soon everyone else will too.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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