A few days into 2021, one of the biggest communication platforms, WhatsApp, started to face severe backlash from the audience regarding a new policy that would allow the messaging app to share user data with its parent platform i.e. Facebook. This change in privacy, now set to be activated in May 2021, will allow businesses to access user data to provide a more personalized experience to each individual, pertaining to their likes and preferences.
Although the messaging giant has since clarified that none of the end-to-end encrypted chats of users will be accessed by the app or any third-party, it has certainly put WhatsApp into controversy, getting users to rethink their trust in the platform, making them shift to alternative messaging apps like Telegram, Signal, etc. choosing them as their primary communication channel.
But with this controversy came the question that, at least every marketer and data analysis expert, has asked either in their heads or out loud: do people really not understand the concept of social media privacy? So in this blog, let us dive into the phenomenon called “social media privacy” and whether it’s even real or just an illusion created to make people feel safe, starting with some basics.
Data Analysis and Social Media
Data analysis, according to Wikipedia, is basically the concept of inspecting, cleansing, transforming, and modeling data with the goal of discovering information, making conclusions, and helping in the decision-making process. And this data analysis is the root of how platforms like Facebook, Google, Pinterest, etc can provide the kind of optimized and user-preference-based services that everyone receives in today’s age.
The tools that each social platform provides, and the communities they are capable of building, don’t happen by chance. The data Facebook and other platforms collect, allows them to make inferences on the basis of user demographics. This demographic data, then, allows advertisers and marketers to target the right consumers, based on their brand’s audience persona, and convert them to become loyal customers of said brands.
With data analysis more or less defined, the next question users ask is whether their data is safe or not. But that depends on which kind of safety you’re talking about. If you merely ask if you block a user, whether they’ll still be able to see your activities or not, then the answer is no, they can’t. Your data is entirely under your control in such a situation. But if you’re asking whether you can control your data from being accessed, strictly on the basis of the privacy settings provided by a social platform? Then no.
And none of this is something to be surprised by. The concept of “online privacy” has never even existed in any of the policies that sites like Twitter, Facebook, or Google provide, which we so easily avoid reading because who reads those boring terms & conditions, right? The promise of these platforms to provide services relevant to your needs at any hour is a clear indication of how much they need access to your data to be able to provide you with the best experiences. In that case, having your data hidden even from the parent site themselves, like Google, Instagram, etc. isn’t ideal, is it?
So here comes the concern for most people about deleting their entire social existence to stay away from having their data accessed. But will that work? The answer is simple: no. Why? Read the next section.
On the outskirts, it’s quite simple. You delete every social media account of yours and that will lead to your digital existence being wiped out, right? But that’s not what happens, because the data you’d already shared on every platform will always be saved in those platforms, whether your account exists anymore or not. Your signature, the proof of you once being registered on socials, will always be present.
Furthermore, your friends and the people you interacted with in the past still existing on social platforms means that the ways that you interacted with them and the data you left during those interactions, will be enough for platforms like Facebook to determine your likes and dislikes, even without your presence. And how is all of this possible? Social algorithms.
In one study, researchers analyzed about 13,905 accounts, sub-dividing them into 927 groups of accounts by studying 1 account in association with their 15 followers they interacted with most frequently. The researchers hypothesized that it will be possible to infer the likes and dislikes of the individual just through ‘encoded’ information gained through the user’s communications and interactions. The results showed that researchers didn’t even need to study 15 followers of a single user to figure out their likes, rather, all they needed were tweets from 8-9 accounts and this could lead to them creating surprisingly, almost 95%, accurate profiles.
What can you do instead?
It’s evident that you can’t entirely cut off these digital platforms in today’s technologically advanced age. Even if you don’t use any social account, you will use Gmail and the basic Google or internet services for keeping your phone active and researching things for your day-to-day life; that alone will make your data analysis easy for digital platforms. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Whichever data you shared in the past may not be ensured safe on all fronts, but whatever you choose to share from now on, can be limited through your own supervision.
Furthermore, there are plenty of tools available that can assess which data of yours is being used by social platforms, which will give you a better idea of what exactly you have control over, and what extent of control it is when it comes to keeping things private.
In the end, the conclusion we reach is that social media privacy, in the simplest sense, is an illusion at best. You can choose which individual in your life can or can’t view your data, but that argument slips away from your control when it comes to huge organizations like Google, Twitter, or Facebook which owns major apps i.e. Instagram and WhatsApp.
Having access to our data is what allows businesses and marketers to reach us and showcase their products, it’s what optimizes our entire digital experience, but it’s also what exploits our privacy in more ways than just one. So the responsibility of how they use the audience’s data lies on the platforms that access them. The fact that you exist on even one social platform means your data is no longer yours alone. We can only hope that this data is accessed in more responsible ways by huge platforms rather than be exploited.