In the past few hours, different Facebook users have condemned the appearance of old, private messages on their Timeline. Facebook maintains that these are old public posts, but the French government has called for clarification. In the meantime, here’s how to protect yourself.

In this age of social networking, it takes very, very little to trigger panic. Proof of this has come over the past few hours with the circulation of the news that various users are beginning to find dozens of messages in plain view on their Timelines which had been sent privately before 2009. The news first came from the Metro France newspaper, which yesterday evening published reports from French Facebook users astonished to see private messages appearing to the right of Timeline, dating from 2009, 2008 and 2007. The news quickly spread throughout the Internet. Just like a snowball rolling down a snowy incline, the news began to gather validation, first from French users, then from other European users, expanding until Facebook was forced to intervene. The answer from Menlo Park arrived promptly, perhaps even a little too promptly. A spokesperson stated in TechCrunch that the news was clearly bogus and that the problem simply consisted of the fact that over the years, users no longer remembered that they had posted certain messages publicly on people’s walls and had convinced themselves that they could have been sent privately.

Facebook’s reply had the effect of nipping most of the polemics in the bud and the Menlo Park theory effectively stands. In the “incriminated” years, Timeline did not exist, but more importantly, in the past it was not yet possible to post comments underneath published content; as a result, it is reasonable to suppose that the use of walls to post messages was a little more relaxed. And yet.

And yet, in the past 12 hours, not a minute has gone by without a new user reporting the exact same problem. If that were not enough to rock Facebook’s position, a statement was issued late yesterday afternoon in the French Huffington Post by a Facebook spokesperson who maintained that the company was trying to determine whether the problem stemmed from a bug or from a hacking attempt. In short, it appears to be a complete impasse: On the one hand, Facebook (backed up by many major publications) reassures us that the problem doesn’t exist; on the other hand, dozens of users and journalists insist that the opposite is true. Wherein lies the truth?

In order to understand the situation, I went to have a look at my own Timeline. I have used Facebook since 2007; it is possible, at least in the first year, that I was used to posting long informative messages on my contacts’ walls. Besides, at that time, Facebook had a much smaller scope and I was not yet aware of the risks and responsibilities related to social networking (I have always said: There should be public service campaigns in schools on social networking, a little like the ones for smoking). However, by 2009, I had already become a trained networker and, just as now, preferred to keep longer and more personal communication to private messaging. I therefore went to click on 2009 in the right-hand column of my Timeline and scrolled down the two columns of content. In the right-hand one appeared the “Highlights” I myself had posted; in the left-hand one appeared a panel labeled “Friends,” where hundreds of messages which my friends had published were collected on my Timeline.

Now, I don’t want to claim to have an infallible memory, but among the various birthday greetings, music videos and shared photos appear messages which I remember having received (and responded to) privately. In order to make sure, I clicked on the list of messages in order to examine them in their expanded form. Result: while some posts were accompanied by comments and “Likes” (and were therefore clearly postings from my old wall), there were also fairly important messages which were not followed by an answer from me, nor a comment nor a “Like.” It is also certainly possible that these were messages that had been posted on my wall and which I had answered privately, which makes the situation even more confusing.

So what can be done? Believe Facebook or sift through your own Timeline looking for uncomfortable content? If in the end, this whole storm is blown over by the winds of the Internet, it is still a good opportunity to learn how to better manage your privacy on social networks. If so many users complained about old posts appearing on their Timelines, it means that among the content were many posts (whether public or private) that the users would have preferred had remained buried in the past. For instance, say that in 2008 you exchanged a bunch of juvenile messages with one of your friends; at the time you didn’t have many contacts on Facebook and you didn’t worry that your boss or one of your relatives might be able to access that content. Today, it can happen that one of your innumerable contacts clicks on 2008 to the right of your Timeline and finds themselves in full view of the conversation.

To avoid this problem, all it takes is clicking on “Activity Log” in the upper right-hand side of your Timeline, choosing the year that you want and hiding any awkward content from your diary (one at a time or all at once, whichever you want). To further protect your past on Facebook, you can ensure that all your old posts are invisible to anyone who isn’t one of your Friends. All you need to do is click on the arrow on the upper right-hand side (next to Home), select “Privacy Settings” and click on “Manage Past Post Visibility.”

While awaiting further elucidation, the controversy continues. Right now, two French government ministers have explicitly asked Facebook to clarify the situation. However it pans out, Facebook has, for the umpteenth time, exposed content that users thought was safely in the past. That is a problem, especially when the storm kicked up precisely on the day when the company registered its umpteenth fall on the stock market.