Home / Industry / Media /  How to avoid unwanted photos on social media

Thanks to smartphones, everyone has a camera in their pocket. With people documenting everything from gatherings to their beauty routines, nearly every social occasion—even ones that should stay private—tends to end up online. Eventually, your image is bound to show up in some posts you don’t like.

Before you stress, consider your options: You can untag yourself, ask the person to delete the photo or video, or report the post if it breaks the platform’s rules. In extreme cases, you may have grounds for a lawsuit.

Here’s what you should know.

It’s probably legal

In the U.S., whoever takes a photo is the copyright owner, and thus, typically has the freedom to share the photo wherever they want—especially if it was taken at a public event, said Mallory King, a copyright and internet law attorney at Traverse Legal in Michigan.

“If they’re not trying to defame you or commercialize the photo, posting it on their social media page is probably OK," Ms. King said. If your friend didn’t take the photo, however, reposting it without permission can be unlawful, she added. If you shot it, you can report the post as your intellectual property for the social media site to remove it.

The rules vary in other countries. Under French law, people usually have to give consent before they can be photographed in private places or before images of them can be published. And anyone convicted of publishing a person’s image without permission can face up to a year in prison, though the country’s privacy regulator urges people to request removal of images before filing a complaint.

It’s still unethical

While the person posting your image without permission may be legally allowed to, doing so could spark ethical concerns. They don’t know how it might impact your life outside of the event—maybe you’re looking for a new job and don’t want your future boss seeing you at a crazy bachelorette party.

“You might feel very exposed, or like your privacy was violated if you see the photo online but didn’t give permission," said Elaine Swann, a manners expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol in California.

Many people aren’t comfortable with appearing online at all. And even those who are fine with it sometimes want to control what’s posted.

If you’re job hunting and don’t want prospective employers to see your social media history, you can temporarily disable your account. On the iPhone app for Meta Platforms’ Facebook, do that by going to Settings & Privacy > under Account, select Personal and Account Information > Account Ownership and Control > Deactivation and deletion. On the Instagram app, tap Settings > Account > Delete Account > Disable Account. You can keep those accounts disabled for as long as you want, and just sign back in to unlock them.

With Twitter, you can deactivate your account for 30 days by tapping Settings and privacy > Your account > Deactivate your account. But you must reactivate it within a month or your account will be permanently deleted.

On Instagram and Twitter, which are public by default for adults, you also can make your profile private. Doing so limits what people who don’t follow you can see. On Instagram, hit Settings > Privacy and toggle on Private Account. On Twitter, go to Settings and privacy > Privacy and safety > Audience and tagging, then drag the Protect your Tweets slider to on.

If you’re particularly sensitive, you can opt to not have a profile at all—though it won’t prevent people from sharing images of you. They could still post photos and videos, but you won’t be tagged and may not know about them.

What you can do

Social-media platforms have different rules for posting photos of others.

Twitter’s are the most strict. In November, the company barred people from sharing personal images or videos of private individuals without their consent. That includes taking a selfie with someone but not agreeing to let them tweet it out. If someone posts it on Twitter without your permission, it falls under “private media." You can report when it happens by tapping the “three dots" icon on the top right of the tweet or by navigating to Twitter’s help center. Repeat offenders will have their accounts permanently deleted, Twitter said.

There’s a caveat. Photos taken of people in public—such as during a protest or a sporting event—don’t violate the rules. Twitter says if the post is of public interest, or is publicly available on other “mainstream channels," the photo might not be removed.

Facebook and Instagram ban the sharing of “intimate" photos like sexually revealing posts or other adult content. But unwanted or unflattering photos aren’t grounds for deletion. Facebook has a “Report" link on photos and videos to flag potential offenses.

Even if the photo doesn’t violate Facebook’s rules, you can untag yourself to remove any sign of the post on your profile. Click on the three-dot menu on the image or video and choose “Remove Tag." Then, go into your privacy settings and adjust your “Profile and Tagging" options to set it so you have to approve all future tagged photos before they appear on your Timeline.

On Instagram, tap the three-dotted symbol that appears above the post to report it. You also can adjust your tagged settings by tapping Settings > Privacy > Posts > then scroll to Tagged Posts and select “on" under Manually Approve Tags.

Removing tags doesn’t delete the photos, but it can limit how your connections see them. On Facebook, the images won’t appear on your profile.

Sometimes, it’s not that big of a deal

Etiquette experts and legal scholars say the best way to avoid being tagged in unwanted group photos is to be clear about your position and where content would be posted if you oblige. You should do this before the shutter goes off. Luckily, there are ways to act without being a buzzkill.

Giving your friends a reason why you don’t want to be in shots can make them more likely to comply, experts said. That goes for before the shot is taken, or if you end up online and want the photo taken down. Ask politely, etiquette experts say.

If you still want to participate in the festivities and be in some shots, stand at the far end of group photos so you can be cropped out before someone posts an image you may not like, Ms. Swann said.

In recent years, some people have banned social-media posts or barred phones entirely at their weddings. If you’re hosting an event, you can set the ground rules.

But sometimes, you just have to just let it go.

“If you’re going to ask someone to take down a post, it should be for something that’s very upsetting or damaging to your reputation," said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “If it’s pure ego, and you just don’t like the way you smiled, you need to really think twice about it."

No matter your sensitivity to shared photos, don’t forget to consider the preferences of your friends. If they ask you to delete something or not share an image of them, respect their wishes.

“Be thoughtful," Ms. Swann said. “It runs both ways."

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