Earlier this year, we launched Digital 2020 - our latest set of Global Digital Reports, which showed that privacy concerns remain front of mind for internet users around the world.

Here, GlobalWebIndex's Strategic Insights Analyst, Olivia Valentine examines the role of privacy on social media and why it matters to users, platforms and brands, alike.

Unlike topics and trends that come and go, data privacy remains an ever-important issue for internet users around the world. And while these concerns aren’t new, users are growing warier as society becomes increasingly data-driven, and as stories in the media reiterate the worth of personal information. 

Back in May of 2018, the EU introduced a sweep of online consumer privacy measures in its GDPR initiative to give back control to the consumer. Then Brexit came and added more pieces to the data privacy puzzle, forcing companies like Google to move UK citizen’s data to the U.S. Add the fast-moving digital landscape to the mix, and it can quickly become a minefield for consumers.

Data footprints in the realm of social media are significant, thanks to internet users now spending an average of 2 hours and 24 minutes per day on social networks and messaging apps, and sharing personal content and information whilst there. But in this documented era of social media distrust, GlobalWebIndex carried out bespoke research among UK and U.S. internet users to check in on how consumers feel about privacy on social media in 2020, and the actions they’re taking in a bid to protect it. Here’s what we found out. 

Attitudes are reflected in actions, but it’s not one size fits all
Almost two-thirds say they’re concerned about how their personal data is being used by social media companies, with 3 in 10 saying they are very concerned. And many aren’t comfortable sharing social media account credentials with other services, websites or apps either, although 35% said they would do so if they trust the third party. 

Almost all know they are in control of their own privacy settings, with two-thirds choosing to actively assess them. And many are likely to have done so off the back of being reminded by the platforms; two-thirds say they can recall being prompted to review their settings at some point in the past - with 44% having then done so immediately. 

But consumers aren’t unanimous in how they deal with privacy. 1 in 4 social media users take the most conservative approach possible - having all of their social media updates and posts set to private and only visible to a select group of followers. This figure jumps to 29% among those most concerned about how social media companies use their data. Conversely, 36% say all their profiles are public and visible to anyone. This segment includes these concerned consumers too, showing that not all of those who are concerned are proactively changing their behaviour. That said, the majority with public profiles say they don’t tend to post any sensitive information anyway, suggesting that it’s sensitive information in particular that is the concern. 

Almost 1 in 5 say they have different privacy settings across social media platforms, and a similar proportion says they do so because they trust some platforms more than others. This ultimately reveals that for many, the platform it’s shared on is just as important as the data itself. Another factor that feeds into this is how increasingly distrustful people are of what is real or fake on the internet. Some social media platforms will no doubt continue to suffer from association with past privacy scandals. And while they might be fighting back to recover credibility and reputation, and consumer opinion is largely open to change, there will always be some who remain sceptical. 

Concerns are not reducing visitation, they’re reducing sharing
So, we know that many have privacy concerns and that many are changing their settings, but what other actions have users taken on social media in the last six months to protect their privacy?

There’s no shortage of discussion around the decline of sharing on social media - our data continues to reveal a pattern of social media users gradually growing less likely to share their own photos or publicise their opinion on these platforms. And when we asked consumers the above question, this trend emerged at the top of the list, with 38% saying they’ve reduced personal sharing to try to protect their privacy. 

When consumers have something to share, they’re now more likely to head to dark social channels to do so rather than open social media platforms, and this shift to intimate spaces, at least in part, will be due to privacy concerns; a third of social media users say they think their data is safest in private messaging apps rather than on social feeds. This is great news for brands who are trying to utilise the space, as less scepticism from consumers should equal more trust for genuine conversations inside the private walls. 

Social media users are also taking other proactive measures against data privacy, and 9% have taken the most drastic action of stopping using a social media platform altogether. Almost 1 in 10 might sound like a lot, but this figure fades into insignificance when latest trends suggest that more than half of the world’s total population will be in the social media sphere by the middle of this year. 

The actions many consumers are taking show they understand that data privacy isn’t a luxury or single faceted, but something they can increasingly carve out themselves to create the kind of online experience they want. 

Why it matters and looking forward
So, what’s next? Well, for social media to expand its footing into other industries that are more personal at their core - like healthcare or personal finance - data privacy is essential.

As consumer fatigue increases, as the amount of content available continues to grow, personalisation is set to become more important to counteract the crowding. But for personalisation at scale, consumers need to trust social platforms to be comfortable sharing more data (even more so than already). And as the major social platforms draw inspiration from each other in a bid to stay competitive in the industry, this trust in social media companies will become even more important as they ultimately decide which platforms to favour. 

Social media scepticism isn’t going away, and whilst the platforms continue to address it, brands will need to carry on riding the wave and shifting their approaches to win over consumers with relatable and individualised content to build the relationships that’ll get them through.