Did Cambridge Analytica Actually Change Facebook Users’ Behavior?

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A survey of Atlantic readers finds the vast majority self-censor on social media because of privacy concerns.

Connection is the watchword.

That’s what Facebook is about, if you haven’t heard. “My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in testimony before Congress in April, after tens of millions of Facebook users learned that their private data had been compromised and shared with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

What Facebook is not about is data misuse. That, along with spam, fake news, and clickbait, are things that happen on Facebook, as a recent apology ad from the company put it, but they’re not what Facebook is about. What does Facebook do? It connects. What is Facebook? A community. What is Facebook for? It’s for friends.

Research shows that people become closer to each other through intimate self-disclosure. But there’s only so much connecting social-media platforms can do if people are too concerned about privacy to use them for the full breadth and depth of human communication. Paradoxically, these tools that were built to bolster relationships may, by their very nature, be keeping people at a distance from each other.

I recently conducted a survey, trying to determine how much people censor themselves on social media and whether the Cambridge Analytica scandal has changed their behavior on Facebook and other platforms. I also shared my survey results with Sauvik Das, an assistant professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Sarita Schoenebeck, the director of the Living Online Lab at the University of Michigan. They kindly performed basic analyses of some of the data.

This survey is not scientific—The Atlantic pushed it out to readers on Facebook and Twitter, in newsletters, and through our membership program, no doubt skewing the demographics of the sample. The 2,218 respondents were 82 percent white and largely based in the United States. Fifty-nine percent were female, 40 percent were male, and 1 percent were nonbinary. A variety of ages are represented, though on the whole the sample leans older.

Nonetheless, the results offer a glimpse at what people are and aren’t willing to share on social media, how much they trust different platforms, and what effect privacy concerns have on user behavior. I also did follow-up interviews with several people to get a more detailed view of their feelings about social-media privacy.

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