Connection is the watchword.
That’s what Facebook is about, if you haven’t heard. “My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in testimony before Congress in April, after tens of millions of Facebook users learned that their private data had been compromised and shared with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
What Facebook is not about is data misuse. That, along with spam, fake news, and clickbait, are things that happen on Facebook, as a recent apology ad from the company put it, but they’re not what Facebook is about. What does Facebook do? It connects. What is Facebook? A community. What is Facebook for? It’s for friends.
Research shows that people become closer to each other through intimate self-disclosure. But there’s only so much connecting social-media platforms can do if people are too concerned about privacy to use them for the full breadth and depth of human communication. Paradoxically, these tools that were built to bolster relationships may, by their very nature, be keeping people at a distance from each other.
I recently conducted a survey, trying to determine how much people censor themselves on social media and whether the Cambridge Analytica scandal has changed their behavior on Facebook and other platforms. I also shared my survey results with Sauvik Das, an assistant professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Sarita Schoenebeck, the director of the Living Online Lab at the University of Michigan. They kindly performed basic analyses of some of the data.
This survey is not scientific—The Atlantic pushed it out to readers on Facebook and Twitter, in newsletters, and through our membership program, no doubt skewing the demographics of the sample. The 2,218 respondents were 82 percent white and largely based in the United States. Fifty-nine percent were female, 40 percent were male, and 1 percent were nonbinary. A variety of ages are represented, though on the whole the sample leans older.
Nonetheless, the results offer a glimpse at what people are and aren’t willing to share on social media, how much they trust different platforms, and what effect privacy concerns have on user behavior. I also did follow-up interviews with several people to get a more detailed view of their feelings about social-media privacy.
Overall, 78.8 percent of people said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the privacy of their information on social media, and 82.2 percent said they self-censor on social media. According to Das’s analysis, older people were more likely than younger people to report self-censoring because of privacy concerns, though the likelihood was 75 percent or above for all age groups. “Self-censorship,” for this survey, was defined as stopping yourself from posting something you might otherwise want to share, because of concerns about privacy.
David Garvey, a 27-year-old sales director in Boston, has been self-censoring since long before Cambridge Analytica, after photos of him drinking in high school found their way to Facebook, where a friend’s mother saw them and alerted his headmaster.
“Right off the bat I ... understood that anything you post on there can be seen pretty much by anyone at any time,” Garvey says. “So I don’t really post anything at all. Anything that could be out there for public consumption, I try to manage very closely.” Garvey says he is “not at all” concerned about his privacy on social media, because he’s already so careful about what he posts.
Among survey participants, Facebook was by far the most used and the least trusted social network—57.9 percent of the platform’s users said they “mostly distrusted” Facebook or had “no trust” in it to keep their personal information private and secure. Every other platform—Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat—had a wider distribution of responses, and a larger portion of people saying they felt “neutral/unsure.” Even Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, was more trusted. A couple people who felt that way told me they did know Facebook owned Instagram, but just felt that the information shared on Instagram—pictures, mostly—was less exploitable.
In an email, a Facebook spokesperson told me the company hasn’t seen “any meaningful impact” on user behavior in the past couple months, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March. “What we have seen is that people now care more about data privacy and understanding the controls and choices they have.” In response to that desire, the company has made privacy settings easier to find and plans to develop a “Clear History” feature that allows users to delete the data Facebook has accumulated on them from outside sources.
But some people do seem to be rethinking how—or if—they use Facebook post–Cambridge Analytica. In my survey, 99 percent of respondents said they were aware of the news—though of course, this survey was pushed out primarily to Atlantic readers, and The Atlantic closely covered the scandal. Of those, 41.9 percent said they changed their behavior on Facebook as a result of learning about the news, mostly by being more careful about what they posted. Das cautions, though, that “people say and do different things when it comes to privacy pretty often.”
A small but not insignificant portion of people—9.6 percent—said they deleted or deactivated their Facebook account as a result of the news. Facebook declined to provide data on whether the average monthly number of people deactivating and deleting their accounts had changed since the Cambridge Analytica news broke, and their most recent earnings report only accounts for the number of users as of March 2018.
Janice Riggs, a 57-year-old in Chicago who runs a style blog, deleted her Facebook account after hearing the Cambridge Analytica news. “It’s one more thing I can just get out of my life,” she says. “I don’t use it. I don’t trust them as far as I could pick them all up and toss them. So I closed mine; my husband closed his. I know two people in Chicago canceling is not going to really give them pause in the dead of night. At least for us, we put a tiny little mark in the sand of how we felt about it.” Riggs also notes that figuring out how to delete her Facebook account was difficult—she ended up googling instructions.
A smaller portion of people—25.6 percent—said they changed their behavior on other social-media platforms after Cambridge Analytica, mostly by being more careful, or posting less, or changing their privacy settings.
Cambridge Analytica aside, the survey respondents said that overall, the information they post on social media is less personal than it was five years ago. Sixty percent of people said they either post a little less or way less personal information, while 25.7 percent said it’s stayed the same.
In 2016, The Information reported that, on Facebook at least, original personal sharing (as opposed to posting memes or links) was on the decline. And another survey, done by the American Press Institute in 2015, found that Millennials reported being more concerned about privacy than they had been in the past.
“I think people are starting to get more used to the idea that social media is part of their life forever,” Das says. He’s even noticed this in himself: He says he primarily shares professional updates or major personal news on Facebook, “whereas before I would share all kinds of dumb things.”
As social media becomes less novel and more like a utility, perhaps people are more aware that their private information is the cost of using social media. But some don’t seem to mind.
“If Facebook wants to use me as a data point to improve their overall algorithm, by all means do it,” Garvey says. “I think it’s going to be a net benefit to society. That data is valuable and I think there are insights to be gleaned from it that are more constructive than harmful.”
“Mark Zuckerberg, I think, is a genius with Facebook,” says Shirley O’Key, a 98-year-old retired teacher who lives in Sacramento, California. “He had admirable goals, he wanted to have the world communicate. I really believe that he sincerely wanted that. Then of course he’s hammered because they said he didn’t keep things private. Well, nothing is private. How stupid can we be?”
Perhaps it’s not that people are stupid, but that they’re stuck. My colleague Alexis Madrigal has posited that Facebook may be unstoppable—too big, too central to too many people’s lives for any negative press to truly affect it. At the very least, it seems that in terms of necessity, Facebook is in a class of its own. The majority of Facebook users in my survey—68.6 percent—said that without Facebook their social life would suffer somewhere from “a little” to “greatly.” For every other social media platform, the majority of people said their social lives would suffer “not at all” without it.
Regina Goodrich, a 26-year-old retail worker in Coral Springs, Florida, says she’s deactivated her Facebook account five times or so in the last five years. But she kept coming back. “I think it was mostly the fear of missing out on something,” she says. But she recently deleted it for good—not because of Cambridge Analytica, but because it was making her feel too anxious, she says. Although, “the privacy concern is definitely a reason why I won’t be making an account again.”
But the majority of people who answered my survey didn’t change their behavior on social media after Cambridge Analytica.
Taylor Moore, a 22-year-old in Chicago who works in digital marketing, says Facebook is her “primary social-media network,” and that she uses Facebook Messenger more than texting. “If I had to delete any app, I think Facebook would have the most impact,” she says. And while she says the Cambridge Analytica news felt like a “violation,” she says she hasn’t changed her behavior because of it.
“Cambridge Analytica is not the first time Facebook’s been in the news for privacy practices,” Schoenebeck says. “That’s been an ongoing news story for almost a decade now. Each time it’s happened, there’s a sense that, ‘No, but this one was the real one, and people are really gonna leave,’ but then people seem to not leave. It’s almost acting like a public utility, in the sense that people, especially adults, feel like they have to be on it. So I think you’re not going to see that people’s use of Facebook correlates with their trust of it. So many institutions and organizations have adopted it—workplaces, schools, community centers, churches—people will in fact miss out.”
While privacy violations may lead some people to opt out of some platforms altogether, the dominance of social media seems unlikely to change at a macro level. “It’s not enough to say we can just stop using these platforms because we can just go back to the old way of things,” Das says. “I think we can’t, because they’ve totally changed how we socialize, at least in this country.”
Rather, if we continue to rely on social media to do much of the heavy lifting of keeping in touch, then privacy violations that damage trust are likely to have a subtler chilling effect. People won’t abandon social media en masse; they’ll just be a little quieter, a little more careful, a little less personal. And social media won’t be a very good tool for real, authentic connection.
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