Social media is a huge part of our daily life and something we use enthusiastically across several platforms. Far from only being a social tool, social media is now so much more than that, as we’re using it for entertainment, business, news and inspiration.
However, all that free browsing and connecting comes at a price: your entire life. That social media platforms are quietly collecting information about us is something we already know, but we’re not that clear on the specifics. How much do these platforms know about us, anyway, and how do they find out? Is there anything you can do about it?
What are social media platforms looking at?
To know what social media platforms know about us, we must first look at what kind of information they’re looking at when collecting data. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s basically everything, from basic info in your profile to your personal messages and that weird thing you searched for last night at 2 am.
Most of this is public anyway, so you’re probably not expecting this to be exactly private. However, while some of this account info isn’t made for the eyes of the public (like your email address or phone number, for example), the company has it, anyway, and it links it to you.
Your name, age, gender, and location are all very easy to learn because you are the one providing most of this information. Anything you put in your profile can be and is traced back to you, so next time you’re tempted to share your life story on there to be relatable, think twice about it.
App & Internet Searches + Activity
That’s right, anything you do through the app is absolutely monitored, traced, and collected. The fact that you looked up your childhood buddy from 25 years ago? They know that. The fact that you Facebook stalk your ex? They file that information away, too. The fact that you follow bodybuilders’ profiles to admire their physique? It’s probably being used right now to target you for a Facebook ad about protein.
Everything you do on these platforms is traceable and usable because it helps them create a profile for you, as a user. This information alone may not be as usable, but together with everything else, it’s really valuable.
Likes & Reactions
Come on, of course the platforms are going to keep track of what you are “liking”, saving, or reacting to. It’s the entire reason why they’re giving you access to their platform for free. When it comes to this, they don’t even have to deduce your likes and dislikes from adjacent activity, because you are showing them by clicking the button.
Again, most of the time, this isn’t exactly dangerous, and we don’t think much about it. That is until you start getting ads for the local Pentecostal church based on the inspirational quote you “liked” a couple of hours ago.
They can also figure out your interests, hobbies, skills, or even career choice based on this kind of activity. No one is suggesting that you stop interacting with posts, but if you’re really private, be mindful of your activity.
Posts, Photos, Comments
Another no brainer – if you’re posting it publicly, then the company has access to it, and it’s being used. And there’s nothing you can do about it, except being very careful about what you post. Even something as innocuous as a sweet “Love you, mom!” comment can become a tool for a brand.
And while posts and comments themselves being used is bad enough, things get really sticky when it comes to photos. No one wants their face being used without their knowledge, but probably right as we speak, someone is using our photos to improve face-recognition software.
Calls & Messages
This is the one that unsettles most people, because it’s a clear intrusion and invasion of privacy, for most of us – using your calls and messages. When you install an app, you’ll usually be prompted to accept some basic permissions. Exceedingly often, these permissions include access to your address book, phone calls, and messages.
Does that mean that these apps are listening to your phone calls or using your private messages? We’d like to think not, and companies certainly deny it. However, experience tells us otherwise – how often have you had ads for something you’d talked about merely hours or days before? Some of these may be coincidences, but the fact of the matter is that apps have access to your microphone and camera, and they use them.
How do you retain your privacy?
Okay, so these platforms know pretty much everything about you – is there any way you can retain your privacy? Well, yes and no. You can go through a lot of efforts to limit the amount of information that gets leaked to a platform like Facebook, but ultimately, if you have and use social media (and sometimes, even if you don’t), these companies will have some sort of information about you. Here are some of the things you can do:
- Delete your social media accounts – drastic? Maybe, but it’s the only way to remove yourself from this equation and make sure that you are limiting the information being collected from now on.
However, you’ve got to keep in mind that anything they’ve already learned, they’ve stored and used. While you can certainly contact the developers of the apps or the companies themselves, there’s not much you can do about the way this info is going to be used.
- Don’t use your personal information – when you create a social media account, you are prompted for an email address, a phone number, etc. Yeah, they’re somewhat necessary, particularly for security purposes, but maybe linking your genuine personal email address isn’t the best idea.
Instead, you may consider either creating a new email address for this purpose, or utilizing one that exists for this kind of thing – social media accounts, newsletters, signing up to websites to get discounts, etc. That way, your real identity will not be linked to this account, and you won’t get all the annoying spam, either.
- Make fake accounts – the easiest way to hide at least some personal information (like your name, face, address, real identity, etc.) is to make a fake account. Fake name, no photographs, and no identifiable information. That means that you’re safe on that front, but as we discussed, certain aspects will still be able to be inferred from your activity, including gender, preferences, income level, etc.
If you’re really dedicated, you can have multiple fake accounts, for different types of activity, to limit possible information inference even more. For example, one account for when you want to play mini games, one for when you’re looking at political pages, one for groups related to different interests, etc.
- Make your activity random – you can also do your best to throw data collectors off and make it more difficult for them to create an accurate profile for you. You can achieve that by displaying random, slightly erratic behavior that doesn’t really follow a pattern.
For example, liking posts from opposite political stances, searching for people in all sorts of different areas and countries, writing in several languages, looking up both typical male and female interests or items, participating in a lot of different interest-based groups, etc. That will stop them from figuring out what gender you are, where you live, how old you are, etc.
There’s no getting around it – social media has us thoroughly hooked and it’s not likely we’re stopping without exercising a lot of willpower. And while it can certainly be fun, it also has a less rosy underlying aspect when you look at all the data it’s tracking about you. Everything from your identity to your relationships and preferences is fair game for data collection, statistics and targeted marketing, which is annoying at best, and creepy, at worst.
Love it or hate it, it’s prevalent and we’ve come to rely on it for a lot of different reasons, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck handing over all of our most personal information. Instead, you can protect your privacy by using some clever tricks and just generally being aware of what sort of information you’re putting out there and what it can be used for.
*Caroline Black is a writer and blogger with a special interest in all things social media and digital marketing. Having worked in online marketing for nearly seven years, she understands social media is a fantastic tool but it’s important to carefully consider what you’re sharing and how you share it.