Too Much Information? Social Sharing and the Surrender of Privacy
By:   //  Citizen Journalism

Forget about the National Security Agency’s recent forays into domestic snooping or the hijacking of shoppers’ personal information by offshore hackers. The real elephant in the data misuse room may be one we cheerfully feed with personal information on a daily basis: social media.

Sharing on social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is a way of life for many people. Long lost loves are found there, families reunited, tragedies and triumphs shared, business done. But recent news about Facebook’s 2012 “Mood Manipulation Experiment” points out the fact that social media sites are also places where logging in opens a door into a user’s life that just about anyone can walk through.

Facebook’s Foray Into Social Science

Facebook conducted its now infamous Mood Manipulation Experiment back in January 2012, but it only came to light in June 2014, with the publication of a study based on the experiment in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The experiment was simple. For one week, Facebook tweaked the news feeds of nearly 700,000 Facebook users to favor either predominantly upbeat, positive news and commentary, or serious, sad news. Researchers then analyzed the content these users posted.

In a phenomenon called “emotional contagion,” it turned out that, not too surprisingly, the users who were fed cheerful news posted more upbeat content themselves, while those who got the negative content posted more negative comments. And people who got fairly neutral content ended up posting less overall.

No users involved in the experiment ever knew about it. And once news of the research broke, Facebook hastened to join with the study’s Cornell University authors to assure everyone that nobody had snooped into their personal content; researchers had used language analysis algorithms and publicly accessible content to come to their conclusions.

But Everybody Does It . . .

Besides, they said, there’s no ‘neutral” presentation of news and advertising. Everybody uses a variety of tools to target potential recipients with their message and make sure it’s as effective as possible. Manipulations happen everywhere in the media. We see a soothing ad for a sleep aid that glosses quickly over the potential side effects, and we’re urged to talk to our doctor about it; public service messages prey on feelings of empathy and guilt.

But the Facebook incident set off alarm bells among users and ethicists who pointed out that the study hadn’t undergone any of the usual scholarly vetting – and that participants were given no opportunity for informed consent – or to opt out. What’s more, the study wasn’t just a matter of observing behavior users were already engaged in. By tinkering with the kind of content that showed up in a user’s news feed, researchers were actually causing those users to write particular kinds of content themselves – and the spooky implications of that took center stage in the ensuing debates.

Terms of Service: Agreement to What?

Morally and ethically questionable the study may have been, but legal it certainly was. Facebook’s very own Terms of Service say that by creating an account users agree to allow Facebook to use their information for “data analysis, testing ad research” — though it’s worth noting that that last reference to “research” was added in May 2012, nearly five months after the Mood Manipulation Experiment ended.

What we share on social media – and what it says about us, has long been the subject of study, though that research has stopped short of actively manipulating what users do. But those studies too are the result of information shared (or not) on social media.

Social Media Defines Personality Types

Do you browse social sites without posting anything yourself? According to research on the connections between social media behavior and personality, you’re probably pretty shy and emotionally sensitive – but not taking an active part can lead to depression. Are you the kind of person who tweets the tiniest detail about your life, posts things like what you watched on TV last night? You’re most likely bored, maybe using social media to divert yourself from troubles in your life. And if you do share downbeat content, you may be vulnerable and needy, looking for comfort and reassurance.

Is that kind of profiling justified – or relevant? For most of us, it probably doesn’t matter. But the posts and videos of people who harm themselves or commit violent crimes are routinely scrutinized and analyzed for clues to motives and plans. The YouTube videos posted by angry, alienated, Elliott Rodger, whose recent shooting rampage in Santa Barbara, CA, shocked the world, laid out a clear intent to do serious harm.

Too Much Information

That compulsion to share, and the “emotional contagion” that comes with it, even impacts the brain. When researchers conducted brain scans on Facebook users, they found that certain areas lit up when those users got “likes,” followers or other kinds of social validation. And that kind of intermittent reinforcement keeps them coming back for more.

It’s that compulsion to share that also gets some people in hot water indeed. Reckless posting of sick jokes, angry rants, even sarcasm and parody, can get users arrested when others see that content and report it to authorities who increasingly are trolling social sites themselves in a kind of cyber patrol.

The content doesn’t even have to be seriously inflammatory, either. In an episode reminiscent of the “tattle tales’ of grade school, an Indiana woman posted a casual comment on her Facebook page about failing to get a dog park permit. A neighbor saw it and reported her to the city. She ended up being slapped with a fine.

The consequences of oversharing can come back to bite in many ways. Employers routinely examine the social media behavior of prospective hires for red flags. So do banks when processing loan applications. And a recent legal ruling allows lawyers to use social media profiles when picking juries – as long as the information they use is viewable by the public.

And most social media activity is publicly visible. Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites do make privacy settings available, which allow users to limit access to their information to a select few. But because the entire point of social media is to share, very little is truly private. And as social media observers point out, if we really wanted information to be private, we wouldn’t be posting it anywhere at all.

I Share, Therefore I Am?

Social media defines connection in the digital world we live in. It makes it easy to meet the human needs for communication and validation with the click of a mouse. But meeting those needs comes with a steep price tag.

A Facebook poster recently said, “It’s been said that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. But now the question is, is the unshared life worth living?”

For many, the answer is no. And if that quest for authenticity and validation means putting personal information on public display, it’s a price they’re willing to pay. But as concerns about the use and misuse of social media data continue to mount, it’s easy to forget that clicking “Agree” on those Terms of Service screens is entirely a matter of choice. Story by CJ McKinney (Image: Flickr | webtreats)


Bartlett, Man. “Why I Delete my Facebook Account.” Hyperallergenic. 20 Jul 2012.

Chandler, Adam. “The Many Reasons to Dislike Facebook’s Mood Manipulation Experiment.” The Wire Technology. 28 Jun 2014.

Robinson, Meyer. “Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment.” The Atlantic. 28 Jun 2014.

Shonell, Alyson. “7 People Who Were Arrested Because of Something They Posted on Facebook.” Business Insider. 9 Jul 2012.

Szalavitz, Maya. “This Is Your Brain on Facebook.” Time. Social Media. 31 Aug 2013.

“What Your Facebook Activity Says About You.” CBS News. Slideshow. Accessed 39 Jun 2014.

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