How Do People Control Privacy on Social Media and What Has the Digital Literacy Got to Do with This?
In 2022, Yadviga Sinyavskaya from the Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics published an article about privacy on social media. It is a part of the laboratory's project on how people build connections and what helps them. We talked to the sociologist about how people try to protect personal information and what makes these measures more effective.
What privacy is and how it works on social media
Privacy may be seen as a mechanism which regulates people's relationships with the environment, including other people. However, this term in itself is very broad.
Privacy implies that there are boundaries between a person and their environment. It is important for everyone to spend some time alone and control the access of others to something personal. This is what helps people to shape their personality, feel autonomous. But the boundaries do not mean that a person closes off from everyone. Quite the opposite, they can choose the situations in which to open for the outside world.
In an online environment, the ways of building communication are different, so the understanding of privacy changes as well. Any user's action leaves digital footprints: from a random 'like' to a search query. It means that all the actions become available for the vast and indefinite number of people. That is why people react negatively to the news about data leaks: they are afraid that someone uses their data for mercenary purposes.
What threatens privacy on social media
The Internet in the 2000s was less connected to privacy. People united with each other according to their interests in thematic forums. They rarely met with the acquaintances from the offline life there. The scientists assumed that such involvement in the online communities distracted people from their real life and communication.
However, the social networks showed that communication on the Internet does not necessarily lead to the loss of habitual social connections. On the contrary, it helps to maintain them. On a large scale, the social networks are a mould of the real world. People are more interested in communicating with those who they already know, so they transfer their contacts to the social media.
But when such a mould of the real life appeared, the social networks users partially lost control over their data and became more vulnerable. It's not just a question of brands using personal information for their own purposes, but of social consequences. Users may become victims of identity theft, stalking or bullying, as a result, their mental health will suffer. Meanwhile, the problems with privacy are not the rarest: 19% of the respondents have faced the identity theft, 10%—leaks of personal information.
Additional limits appear because users add people from various social groups as friends. They can't tell their parents or employers the things which they share with their friends. Correspondingly, they lose an opportunity to tell about their life in the way which would meet the expectations of each of these groups. They have to limit themselves.
How people protect their privacy on social networks
Though it has become much harder to keep your privacy on the Internet, it is still possible. Some people create fake accounts and make up some stories about themselves to make it harder to identify them. Some users create closed accounts for a small circle of friends and write whatever they want. Others give only such information about themselves, which is the most acceptable for all the social groups.
The social networks also support the trend for privacy. For example, earlier 'Vkontakte' gave the users an opportunity to close the photo albums from the certain users’ groups, but now there is an option to close the whole pages and create posts for a limited number of users.
However, the problem with privacy settings is that it requires significant investments. You have to understand what, how and from who you want to hide the information, but people do not really like to strain themselves in general. They start to treat privacy on the Internet with indifference or even cynicism: why should I protect myself if I cannot do it fully? This is similar to prevention of COVID-19 in some way: it is hard for people to comply with the preventive measures regularly, at some point, they want to relax.
What motivates people to protect their data
In my article in 2022, I wanted to examine which factors influence private behaviour. The research focused on the citizens of Volodga who were registered in 'Vkontakte'. They found out about the research via an advertisement, then everyone who was interested filled in the 44-questions form about the privacy on social networks. The form was completed up to the end by 375 people. I studied the factors which influence privacy with the help of regression analysis and structural equation modelling.
I assumed that if people had a negative experience, for example, their account was hacked or they faced an identity theft, they would try to protect themselves. Indeed, such a factor exists, but it is insignificant. So we cannot assert that a negative experience matters for people when they decide to protect their account on social media.
Another hypothesis concerned worrying about privacy issues in general: those who know more about privacy worry more about their personal data. But this factor was insignificant as well.
But it turned out that the desire to protect their data is influenced by the time for which the user had been registered on the social network. So the digital literacy happened to be more important than a negative experience or anxiety.
How the research on privacy will continue
The article on the influence of a negative experience and digital literacy on privacy on social networks is just a part of a big project by the Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics. We have also built the network of contacts for it and checked how the respondents from Vologda were connected with each other. It was clear from the person's location in this network who can learn something new and unusual from various social groups and who is more involved in their own one. This corresponds well to the theory of strong and weak connections.
Now I am planning to finish my dissertation about how the private behaviour is related to social benefits. We might expect that the social networks help to keep in touch with the acquaintances or the friends of your friends. In the future, it may help a person to make new acquaintances and find a job. But if you shut yourself off from such acquaintances, you risk losing such opportunities. This is what I want to check.