Doomsayers and cybercynics will tell that social media companies are good for nothing and out to steal everything – from the US election to your data and, quite possibly your soul.
Whoaaa! Steady on. Let’s bring a little perspective, shall we?
There are plenty of steps that we, social media users, can take to safeguard our online data privacy.
We know that, on one hand, social media has, without doubt, changed our daily lives for the better. There’s a reason that 3.6 billion people around the world use some form of social media - that’s almost half of the world’s population and the number will rise to 4.41 billion by 2025. And we’re using it a lot - the average person now spends 145 minutes a day using social media, that’s 36 full days per year!
On the other hand, there’s a growing concern about data privacy and social media. A recent study showed that 80% of social media users are concerned about advertisers and businesses accessing the data they share on social media platforms.
Couple that with recent data breaches by social media giants – we’re looking at you Facebook – and the concern is more than justifiable.
While governments have been slow off the mark when it comes to regulation, the EU’s 2018 GDPR initiative has kickstarted what will hopefully be a move towards a more ethical social media landscape.
Government’s aside, here’s what we can do to take control of our online privacy.
Still using your cat’s name as your password across all your social media accounts? Now’s the time to tighten things up.
Using a strong unique password for each of your social media accounts is the way to go. Make sure you use a combination of letters – both uppercase and lowercase – as well as numbers and special characters.
You could also use a password manager. Password managers act as a personal password database, storing and encrypting your login information for all sites and platforms and helping you log in automatically.
Another option is a security key. These come in the form of a USB key (for desktops and laptops) or a Bluetooth-powered fob (for smartphones) and contain a cryptographic code that protects you from password theft and phishing scams. The best thing about it? If your passwords are hacked, you’re still safe from attackers as they’d need the key to access your online accounts.
All social media users should use 2FA – two-factor authentication – wherever possible. This means two separate types of identification are needed to access your accounts, giving you an extra line of defense. For instance, when you log in to a social media platform, a message will be sent to your phone or email will be pinged over to you with a confirmation code. You’ll need to input this code, along with your username and password, when logging in to verify your identity.
Here’s how to enable 2FA for popular social media platforms:
Another fundamental change that you can make with just a few clicks of a mouse, adjusting your privacy settings should be one of the first things you do to help protect your online privacy.
It’s definitely something that’s on the radar of most social media users – a 2019 survey carried out by DuckDuckGo found that almost 80% of social media users adjusted their privacy settings in the past year.
But what kind of adjustments do you need to implement? While making your profile completely private, rather than viewable to the general public, is a good start, there are lots of other things you can do to limit your exposure on socials.
Facebook has a wide range of adjustable settings. Go to the privacy tab in your privacy settings and tools menu, where you’ll be able to specify who can send you friend requests and who can look you up, as well as who can see your past and future posts. You can also adjust who can tag you and who can see tagged content via the timeline and tagging tab.
For Twitter, select protect my tweet in the privacy menu to keep tweets viewable only to followers. Also, make sure tweet location is disabled and adjust photo tagging and discoverability for extra privacy.
Instagram has far more simplified privacy settings. Your account is either private or public. To make it private, tap on your user icon to open the options menu then scroll down to public/private account and swipe right.
While having your favorite apps track your location can be really convenient, it’s important to have control over what you’re sharing, when you’re sharing it, and who you’re sharing it with.
According to a study by security company ADT, more than ⅓ of social media users say they often or always leave the location services enabled on their smartphones. In addition, 39.6% say they sometimes have their location turned on.
The fact is, it’s easy to configure your location services so that only a select few apps use this function. Here’s how to turn off location services for social media apps:
You can also delete your location history for each social media app – you’ll be able to find this option in the Settings > Location Settings > Location History menu of each app.
The same ADT study as above found that a surprisingly low 3.8% of people never actively share their location. There’s definitely something to be said for keeping your whereabouts to yourself. So, for those who want to take further steps to safeguard online privacy, doing away with Facebook ‘check-ins’ and location sharing on other platforms is a good idea. This leads us to...
You might have seen the ‘Continue with Facebook’ or ‘Continue with Google’ message that pops up when creating a new account for a website. Not only does it give the site access to everything you do on social media – and the social media platform access to everything you do on the new site – but it also leaves you open to phishing scam.
Also, you know those Facebook quizzes that promise to reveal which Harry Potter character you’re most like? They can sometimes be scams, with malicious links and downloads that can harm your computer. Also, the information for quizzes and personality tests, although seemingly harmless, can be used to build psychological profiles which allow marketers to launch targeted ads that play on your emotions, values, and beliefs.
While getting to grips with the privacy settings on your social media apps does have an impact when it comes to securing your data, there’s a far more effective measure we all can take:
Share less of our lives!
It seems that the tide is turning that way. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was evidence to suggest that social media is less ‘social’ than it used to be. A survey by GlobalWebIndex found that between 2016 and 2019 there was a 10% drop in video and image sharing, as well as a 15-20% drop in users sharing opinions on social channels.
In a 2020 survey, they also found that 38% of users reduced personal sharing as a way of protecting privacy on social media.
We’re becoming more conscious of our social media ‘footprint’ – the trail of information we leave behind – sharing our opinions less and instead using socials to consume content and get recommendations and info on services.
Another way to look after your data is to delete your old accounts when they’re no longer in use. Even though you’re not using them, they most probably contain sensitive information – including, perhaps, passwords that you’ve since reused – that could be open to online hackers.
There’s also a growing trend of switching to ‘dark’ social media, where content is shared in a directly private way, rather than in a public space.
Private messaging apps like Whatsapp, Telegram, Threema, Signal, and Wire are now used more frequently than social media platforms when it comes to sharing information or content (63% of users compared to 54% of users).
With Facebook pledging to become a privacy-focused platform and other leading platforms set to follow suit, it seems that social media companies are waking up to the major shift in public attitudes to online privacy.
And as they draw inspiration from each other to compete for the trust of the public, it’s up to us, as social media users, to stay informed and fully aware of how our online data is used, and to lay out our expectations for social media companies to follow.
In the meantime, we can follow the advice above and be the change we want to see. Then we’ll set about a future where, far from having the destructive impact predicted by those doomsayers and cybercynics, social media could actually live up to its potential as a tool to change the world.
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