What are you telling social media companies about you?

In our own opinion, everyone knows social media companies collect personal data from users anyway.

Is allowance instantly strangers applauded

Social media companies understand the need to move marketing from instincts to intelligence. Within its intrinsic design, the idea of a social network, a virtual space where millions of people interact with each other at ‘personal’ levels, describes the need for personal data collection.

Social data is simply referred to as any such information that is collected (emphasis intended) from social media platforms, including how users interact and engage with content. It is useful for analysing the performance of an account over a period of time, curate them into marketable leads and guide the design of product launches, marketing campaigns among others.

The scandal involving British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users was collected without their consent to influence the 2016 US Presidential election of Donald Trump is a landmark testament of this significant power of unconsented data collection.

In our own opinion, everyone knows social media companies collect personal data from users anyway. Nonetheless, some of the prominent calls for concern have been for increased transparency into the two major ‘Hows’ associated with this phenomenon.

The first – how does social media companies collect personal data from users, has been the subject of several debates on the ethics or the lack thereof, of social media companies in this regard. Reports of data breaches and compromise of personal data have saddled several courts and fora, with users expressing distrust for the system.

The second – how does social media companies use these personal data, has similarly generated impassioned concerns over how social media companies benefit from users, sell data, intrude into privacy of users and track user preferences and digital footprints across the internet. This ordinarily includes debates of whether the state and its security assigns can compel a network on social media company to give up personal data of its users to aid in criminal investigations.

Leetaru wrote for Forbes in 2018, in which he rightly observed that “any discussion of how companies secretly acquire our personal private data without our informed consent must start with the data brokers, from which even Facebook itself formerly had to purchase a great deal of its ad targeting data.”

He continued by noting that “this shadowy world buys and sells our most intimate private information every day and we have no right to demand to know what the companies hold on us.”

The ridiculousness of the extent to which social media companies and online search engines are able to acquire several significant piles of personal data of its users, perhaps, only pales in comparison to how the users themselves give out these information.

According to Delbert, “any website that is free to use is selling your participation as its product. That includes personal data such as names, birthdates, locations, IP addresses, gender and device IDs, as well as more abstract info such as hobbies and interests.”

With improved APIs and data tracking, websites are able to interact with other websites and provide relevant user behaviour. The insights that Google and social media companies gather from user behaviour and interactions across these platforms are available to help marketers direct their strategy and focus their campaigns towards your increased participation.

Furthermore, a 2018 article published by krebsonsecurity.com brought attention to the fact that users may have been subtly tricked into providing personal historic data about themselves online “that can be used to unlock access to a host of your online identities and accounts.” Regular engagement posts such as short surveys, quizzes etc. that urge users to answer seemingly harmless questions such as “Who was your favorite teacher” etc. has often been viewed as a way for companies and online brands to interact with their followers. However, the case has been made that these answers remain online, forming a digital footprint that is traceable to your profile and online identity.

Social media companies are also able to collect behavioural data quite easily, by tracking the frequency with which you interact with their websites. Instagram analytics, for instance, is able to tell the peak periods in which users visit specific accounts, the demographics of these users etc. Account owners use this insight to direct increased traffic to their top posts.

There is no need rehashing the fact that websites are able to tailor ads based on your search history, location, interests etc. With your complete profile fully laid out across the internet, it is easy for any website you interact with to predict the issues and topics that are of interest to you. In any case, if you ever have to contribute to a user-survey site, be sure you know you’re contributing to the information social media companies have, which can be sold to marketers.

2021 is almost over. Social media and tech companies are not reneging on their efforts to completely and exclusively customize user experiences online. It is nearly impossible to stay away from these websites and platforms. Matter of fact, we refrain from advising this, given that an online presence is a great way of pushing your personal brand further forward in a world that is inching further forward in the information age.

What we can advise is this – keep a healthy profile online, the internet never forgets!