The ‘privacy paradox’ in social media use | #socialmedia


There has been much concerned public discourse over the Orwellian collection of private and personal information of citizens by governments and surveillance capitalists since the advent of the World Wide Web in 1991.

Frankly, concerns regarding the surveillance habits of “Big Brother” were a reality long before 1984, the setting for George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare future. Although published in 1949, the dystopian social science-fiction masterpiece proved to be remarkably prescient, predicting a future dominated by continual war, omnipresent government surveillance and propaganda.

It introduced terms like “Big Brother,” “thought police,” “doublethink” and “newspeak” into the global lexicon of totalitarianism, and birthed the disturbing realization that “Big Brother is watching” … watching us all … now.

Orwell’s imagined world of oppressive government spying on its citizens 24-7 may have been realized sooner than envisioned, however the scale and scope exploded with the advent of social media platforms — especially following the shocking 9/11 terrorist attacks. It led to increased government surveillance, both domestic and international, aided by the growth of a new commercial industry based upon the clandestine collection and sale of private user data; surveillance capitalism.

Facebook and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, both leading surveillance capitalist companies, were the seventh and fifth largest companies in the world by market capitalization in 2020, at $795 billion (U.S.) and $1.1 trillion (U.S.) respectively.

Using sophisticated and closely guarded proprietary algorithms, surveillance capitalists monitor and collect so-called “digital exhaust” from users, without their knowledge or permission, and package the data into predictive and behavioural modification products for sale to commercial interests, governments, politicians and other customers.

They may monitor a user’s social media conversation and mood throughout the week to target just the right sale advertisement at the right time, monitor your driving habits through the GPS in your car and phone to sell to auto insurance companies, or collect data from your “Fitbit” (a Google company) to inform health insurers about your exercise habits and cardiac health.

Surveillance capitalism is big business, antithetical to our concepts of freedom and democracy, and it won’t go away without government regulation.

It is also however, public knowledge that surveillance capitalists are spying on us.

This has created a “privacy paradox,” a term used to describe the perplexing continued use of social media and other surveillance capitalism products, despite privacy concerns resulting from their use. It is defined by the absence of any relationship between users’ information privacy concerns and their online self-disclosure.

Why do people continue to use social media with the full knowledge that they are being spied on?

In 1993, Annenberg School for Communication professor Oscar Gandy published The Panoptic sort: a political economy of personal information, which compared modern surveillance systems to a panopticon — an architectural design that allows prisoners to be monitored by observers — “the panoptic sort is an antidemocratic system of control that cannot be transformed because it can serve no purpose other than that for which it was designed — the rationalization and control of human existence.”

A 2014 study at the University of Hamburg investigated the potential influence of privacy concerns, psychological traits, attitudes to social media, and age on self-disclosure. It found that, “Given the diffusion of the social web and increased disclosure of personal information online, the ‘privacy paradox’ suggests that while internet users are concerned about privacy, their behaviours do not mirror those concerns. The findings indicate that privacy concerns hardly impact self-disclosure, but different variables moderate this relation. Perceived social relevance and the number of applications used proved important. Users’ general willingness to disclose is most important when providing sensitive information.”

Now a study Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, by Angel Hernandez-Garcia of the University Politecnica de Madrid and Dr. Anatoliy Gruzd of Ryerson University involving 1,500 Canadians, suggests there may indeed be a relationship between user privacy concerns and disclosure. The study captured five dimensions of self-disclosure: amount, depth, polarity, accuracy and intent; and two aspects of privacy concerns: concerns about organizational and social threats.

It concluded, “Different privacy concerns may trigger different privacy protection responses and, thus, may interact with self-disclosure differently … Our research does not support the presence of a privacy paradox as we found a relationship between privacy concerns from organizational and social threats and most of the dimensions of self-disclosure (even if the relationship was weak).”

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That result notwithstanding, the fact remains that billions of people worldwide continue to use social media despite the known privacy concerns.

That is a paradox still awaiting explanation.

Ken Grafton is a freelance writer living and working in Quebec.





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