After the Associated Press published an article on March 20th about employers asking job candidates for Facebook and social media passwords, the response was, to say the least, overwhelming.

In the month since, there have been thousands of tweets and social media status updates, more than 2,000 blog posts, and hundreds of news articles on the "trend." Legislation was proposed in at least three states, and by April 9th, Maryland had hastily passed a bill. Even the federal government got involved, with Congressional committees planning hearings on the issue. For its part, Facebook reiterated its service terms, which prohibit members from sharing their passwords with anyone.

There was, of course, only one problem: Outside of a handful of specific cases (one of which dated back to 2006), the AP article provided little evidence of the "trend." And journalists who chased the story - both the mainstream kind and the digital journalists who fill blogs with fodder - failed to kick the tires on the nonstory.

Full disclosure: While I was ahead of the curve, chasing the same MSN Money story that AP chased, I was still on the bandwagon, writing a post on March 12th about what you should do if an employer asks you for your Facebook password. Like AP, I found no shortage of career coaches, HR experts and disgruntled job applicants willing to feed me quotes on the trend, but I never went back to see if the original story held up to close scrutiny.

The AP article quoted Justin Bassett, a New York City statistician who said he withdrew his job application from an unspecified company after being asked for his Facebook password, because he didn't want to work somewhere that would seek personal information from a password-protected social media profile. The article, by Manuel Valdes and Shannon McFarland, went on to make other claims, including:

    • "Some companies and government agencies are going beyond merely glancing at a person's social networking profiles and instead asking to log in as the user to have a look around."

 

    • "Companies that don't ask for passwords have taken other steps -- such as asking applicants to friend human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview."

 

    • "Asking for a candidate's password is more prevalent among public agencies, especially those seeking to fill law enforcement positions such as police officers or 911 dispatchers."

 

    • According to E. Chandlee Bryan, a career coach and coauthor of the book "The Twitter Job Search Guide," who AP interviewed, "More companies are also using third-party applications to scour Facebook profiles... One app called BeKnown can sometimes access personal profiles, short of wall messages, if a job seeker allows it."



There was, however, very little empirical evidence to back up any of the article's claims. Consider that a big chunk of the 2004 documentary "Outfoxed" spends a considerable amount of time blasting the use of the phrase "some people" by Fox News as shoddy journalism, and you start to see the growing problem with the AP story. Beyond anecdotal evidence, there was very little to support the main assertions made in the article.

 

Shopping for Quotes to Fit the Story

Clarification, May 2, 2012: In an email, BeKnown disputed the AP's claim that Sears Holdings Inc. was using its product. "We did a few searches and can’t find any evidence that the retailer mentioned in your story has claimed a BeKnown company profile.  Therefore, they could not be 'using' the BeKnown app," said Tom Chevalier of Monster Worldwide, which makes the product.

<strike>For example, the only company cited by name as using BeKnown was Sears Holdings Inc.</strike> A company spokesperson, however, said Sears <strike>only used it to pull</strike> only uses social media profiles to find the most-up-to-date work history into an online application. Job candidates also have the option of filling out the online application manually, meaning it is their choice to let their potential employer access their Facebook profile.

"People keep their social profiles updated to the minute, which allows us to consider them for other jobs in the future or for ones that they may not realize are available currently," Sears spokeswoman Kim Freely told AP. The problem was that Freely's explanation was in the story's 26th paragraph - cut from almost all print and several online editions, and far too low for most bloggers and journalists who chased the story to notice.

The difference between Fox News' use of "some people" in 2004 and AP's use of "some companies" in 2012? About 40 million additional blogs, the advent of Twitter and the increased use of Facebook from a handful of college campuses to more than 850 million people worldwide. A good headline and some shoddy reporting is all it takes to make your story go viral - facts are optional.

And the problem continues: At this writing, there have been more than 50 references of "Justin Bassett" on blogs within the past week, according to Google Blog Search. Orin Kerr, a professor quoted in the initial article, comes up 292 times in Google Blog Search when linked with "Facebook" and "password."

Multiple "Sources"

After Bassett, who did not respond to requests for an interview made through a LinkedIn profile, most of the articles and blog posts reference Robert Collins, who was asked for a Facebook password during a reinstatement interview when he returned to his job as a correctional officer at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The employer - who was not contacted for comment by AP and declined comment to ReadWriteWeb - purportedly wanted to check for gang affiliations.

Another frequent source was Rob MacLeod, who claimed he was asked for social media logins during job interviews for police officer positions. Finally, on April 2nd, bloggers started tying in Kimberly Hester, a teacher's aide in Michigan, who was told to turn over her Facebook login information after a parent she had friended on the social network complained about a photo she had posted. Hester refused and was fired.

We're over the initial shock, and the coverage now has moved onto proposed legislation and career columnists advising job applicants what to do if they are asked for a Facebook password during an interview. My advice? Call me and give me the scoop - if someone is actually asked for their password or told to log in as an interviewer looks over their shoulder, I'd like to know about it. It would be refreshing to cover actual news on this alleged story.