The Privacy Paradox

In a post Cambridge Analytica world, why are people still using social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram? Despite the fact that people threatened to leave the social network in droves after the data breach was revealed, most people actually stayed on and things returned to normal. Why is this the case?

A window printed with the words "private meeting room"
“Private” by Duane Tate is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Social media scholars have identified  a phenomenon called the privacy paradox that can help to explain this behavior. Put succinctly, the privacy paradox refers to the fact that though people state they do not intend to disclose their personal information online, they do so anyway; or the fact that though people say they do not trust that their information will be private online, they still end up disclosing a large amount of personal information on social networks.

Why the disconnect? Well I suspect it’s in part due to the discourses that social media platforms have directed regarding personal responsibility for privacy. A type of discursive direction of responsibility to the user has been occuring in Mark Zuckerberg’s statements since the first Facebook privacy scandal (the introduction of the first news feed). My dissertation research showed that the corporate response to privacy concerns (via Zuckerberg’s blog posts, then later public statements) has generally been to tell users that they can adjust their privacy settings to control their own privacy.

And people seem to have taken this to heart. A recent article by Alyson Young and Anabel Quan-Haase shows that the reason why young people still feel comfortable disclosing personal information online is because they feel they have protected their information by adjusting their privacy settings. They disclose because they feel they can control their online privacy, which is exactly what the statements made by Facebook and Zuckerberg suggest.

What the Facebook statements don’t reveal though is exactly the problem that led to Cambridge Analytica. They don’t reveal that privacy settings do not protect people from uses of their data by Facebook, or uses of their data that are sanctioned by Facebook (for example the use by companies or app developers that Facebook has deemed appropriate). The tightest privacy settings in the world would not have protected people from having their data scraped by Cambridge Analytica because at the time, Cambridge Analytica was working within the Facebook Terms of Service.

The privacy paradox continues because people think they have more control over their information than they do. If companies like Facebook continue to perpetuate this myth, then we need additional digital literacy education in order to provide a counterpoint to the dominant discourses. I think that people are beginning to think more critically about the data they are giving away to Facebook, but I also think we need a larger public education campaign, and perhaps policy changes to really begin to correct the widespread misinterpretations that exist around online privacy. Perhaps there is a new opportunity, post Cambridge Analytica, to have more of these discussions.

The Privacy Paradox

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