I’m a longtime fan of Taylor Swift. Her music is often the background music in my life. It should then be no surprise that the Miss Americana documentary was at the top of my list to watch. The film’s underlying theme was Taylor’s past need to self-censor to fit the mold of what she thought people wanted her to be, even if it was at the expense of her happiness. The documentary highlights how she strategically decided not to share her political views with the world (until 2018). She long followed the country music industry’s advice to not be like the Dixie Chicks, who you might remember went on a indefinite hiatus following their negative comments about President Bush in 2003.
Taylor Swift and other celebrities are not the only demographic that must self-censor on social media. We all do. Self-censorship is when we withhold or modify what we share with others because we are afraid of negative social consequences. The consequences of sharing may be financial, like the reason Taylor Swift did not previously share her political beliefs. More likely, people have a fear of social backlash because their social circle will perceive their post as negative or even offensive.
Dr. Noelle-Neumann has conducted extensive research in this space, which she calls the “Spiral of Silence” Theory. The theory suggests that because we are afraid of “social isolation,” we monitor other people’s behavior and learn which actions result in positive and negative reactions. We then hide or self-censor the behaviors that we believe will be perceived negatively.
This phenomenon in which we self-regulate to meet social norms seems “normal” to me as a way to mold the culture in which we want to live. What is not “normal” to me is when we choose self-censorship on social media due to privacy concerns when the audience are people we trust and with which we wish to connect.
Privacy Concern and Self-Censorship on Social Media
Researchers Victoria Wang and Mark Warner conducted a recent study to explore self-censorship on social network sites. The study found a relationship between privacy concerns and self-censorship. This finding suggests the more concerned we are about our privacy on social media, the more likely we are to self-censor. The research also found that the more aware people are about privacy, the more concerned they are with their privacy when communicating online. Interestingly, surveys following the Snowden and Cambridge Analytica revelations align with this research.
In 2013, Edward Snowden informed the world that the United States government conducts mass surveillance on its citizens and allies’ citizens. We learned that social media sites were one source of the collection. A couple of years later, PEW conducted research to understand what privacy strategies Americans had deployed in the Post-Snowden Era. The individuals who were most concerned about government surveillance were also the most informed about Snowdens’ revelations (34% of respondents). Of those informed:
- 17% of respondents changed their social media privacy settings to hide information from the government.
- 13% stopped using certain terms in their communications.
- 8% deleted their social media account.
In my opinion, the privacy risks highlighted by the Snowden Revelations were hard for most Americans to understand. The conversations following focused on whether Snowden was a hero or a traitor, or if the government was within its rights to conduct this mass surveillance. The general discussion did not focus on the privacy implications. While people may not understand the full effects, it’s safe to say that we know the government is “listening,” and this may impact our disclosure decisions.
What happens to society when the people “listening” aren’t generally trusted entities like the United States government. What happens when these third parties are taking action to influence our opinions and our decisions?
As news broke about Cambridge Analytica, it was made very apparent to Americans that their data was not only vulnerable, but it was valuable. Cambridge Analytica purchased Facebook data related to tens of millions of unknowing American users. But, the real concern was rooted in how Cambridge Analytica used the data to influence the 2016 presidential election. Now, for maybe the first time, Americans were aware that the data they choose to share could be used by companies to influence (or manipulate, you pick) their decisions to buy products, to watch a show, or to vote for a particular candidate. This unauthorized use of Facebook data caused significant privacy concerns for Americans, and started what Wired deemed “The Great Privacy Awakening.”
A survey conducted by the Atlantic of 2,218 Americans found that 78.8% of respondents are concerned about their privacy on social media following Cambridge Analytica. Now, what are Americans doing to protect their privacy in this Post-Cambridge Analytica Era? According to the survey:
- 82.2% of the respondents have resorted to self-censorship on social media.
- 41.9% of respondents said they changed their behavior, and of those, 24.8% are more careful about what they post on Facebook.
The privacy management strategy people are taking aligns with Wang and Warner’s findings that as people are more concerned with their privacy on social media, they will choose to self-censor. Unlike the reasons we self-censor according to the “Spiral of Silence” Theory, we are engaging in self-censorship because we believe our data will be mishandled or used for purposes we did not consent to or even know. We are becoming more aware of the privacy risks present today when engaging with our communities through social media. When we learn that our data may be used by strangers to influence our decisions, we lose our autonomy. When we lose our autonomy, we lose our freedom.
Loss of autonomy is a privacy risk that should be heavily weighed when deciding to disclose information on social media.
While people may not be abandoning Facebook and other social media platforms at the rate some may expect, the decision to self-censor is a powerful strategy that we should not ignore.