We share just about everything on the internet these days, naive about the fact that our constant over-sharing grants the world access to our deepest secrets. We check in at locations, share photos, and allow people to feel like they went on vacation with us. While many people are freely sharing anything and everything across their favorite social media networks, who is making sure they maintain at least some level of privacy?
Have you ever searched for something on Google, and suddenly found all your social media channels’ ads related to that searched item? That’s not a coincidence. Companies use “pixel retargeting” to serve up ads for things they already know you’re interested in. We love sharing our lives with family and friends—which is what social is for—but often forget that everything we shared is also shared with the platforms, and in a very real way, the internet itself. Google tracks our keywords, Facebook tracks our likes and interests, Instagram tracks who we follow. Your social media networks are getting to know you on a deeper level, whether you want them to or not.
We post statuses about going out of town, leaving our homes waiting to be broken into by anyone with a Facebook page—only about 1.40 billion people, no big deal, right?. We post photos, share our full name, birthday, where we went to school, where we work, all while being oblivious to the idea that someone could try to harm us, seek us out, or steal our identities. A New York Times investigative report revealed that an “American company named Devumi collects millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud” (Confessore, Dance, Harris & Hansen, 2018). They sell Twitter followers and retweets to anyone looking to become a social media influencer and gain online popularity. The company has provided some customers with more than 200 million followers (Confessore et al., 2018) some of which could be profiles using your face and your name, but certainly not be you.
But don’t run and delete all your social media accounts just yet. Instead, educate yourself on what you can do to ensure you have as much online privacy as possible. There are steps that can be taken within each platform to help protect you and the information you share.
Twitter is a huge platform and sits right behind Facebook in social network rankings. It is live, constant, and fast; it’s also getting lengthier: there’s a 280-character limit on tweets, but a new “thread” feature of allows users to continue thoughts for as long as they want. And it’s flexible: tweets also often include photos or video content. But Twitter’s default settings make your account public, so it is up to you to proactively give yourself more protection. And while Twitter holds pride of place as one of the safest social networks, by taking the time to educate yourself on security and privacy options and being mindful of which third-party apps you allow to access your account, you can rest assured that you’re doing everything you can to keep your presence safe (Bennett, 2013).
Changing your settings is a very simple process. You can make your profile private, which enables you to take advantage of features like approving followers, keeping tweets out of Google searches, restricting replies and searches to your accepted followers, and displaying tweets only to them. This allows your tweets to be protected so only those you truly want to read them will be able to do so.
But if you’re the typical avid Twitter user, you like sharing your thoughts with the wide-open Twitterverse, and having a private account doesn’t appeal to you. There are still steps you can take to improve privacy. Security options include changing your settings to only allow certain people to tag you in photos, opting to receive login verification requests, requiring personal information to reset passwords, and keeping your location private (ID Wise, 2017).
Facebook has been the most-used social media network since its birth 10 years ago. By now, the amount of personal information stored within the platform is massive. Facebook was intended to be a place to connect with family and friends, but as it evolved, it tapped into almost every app we use with the ubiquitous “sign in through Facebook” feature. It’s a good idea to examine which third-party applications you have access to your Facebook profile. To view all the apps you have previously approved, access the “privacy settings and tools” panel and select “apps.” As many of us will see when allowing third-party apps access, the app is requesting our information and our friends list. Facebook does allow settings for third-party application access as well. In these settings, you have the option to change what information a third-party app collects from you, along with the removal of all information collected by the app (ID Wise, 2017).
With one click on our profile, users can see our hometowns, activities, hobbies, political preferences, interests, family members, and birthdate. Although you have some options about privacy settings, it’s important to note that certain information is always available to the public, including your name, profile picture, cover photo, gender, networks, username, and user ID (ID Wise, 2017). You can set who has access to view your profile between four general audience options: Public, so anyone can view; Friends, where only people you approve can view; Custom, which allows you to hand-pick people and lists; and “only me,” so no one but you can see your profile. Obviously, to keep information as secure as possible, avoiding the “public” setting is the best option. You should also be mindful of the kind of content you share, and understand how sometimes you can unwittingly compromise your identity. The fewer details you share, the safer you are, but there are steps to ensure your safety while still enjoying the sharing aspects of the app including:
- “Who can see my stuff?” There is an option to edit settings to only allow “Friends” to view future posts.
- “Who can contact me?” For maximum security, select “Friends” or “Friends of Friends” for who is allowed to send you friend requests. In this section, you can also filter the messages you will receive in your Facebook inbox.
- “Who can look me up?” In the last privacy section, users have the ability to filter who can find them by searching an email address and/or a phone number. To monitor and limit people accessing you through search results, select the most restrictive option, “Friends” (ID Wise, 2017).
Again, you hold the most power when it comes to protecting yourself because you choose what to share. Including personal information like your hometown, location, birthdate, or high school may be fun, but by limiting what share you can be more confident in the safety of your information.
Instagram is a smartphone-based application designed to share visual content only, including photos and videos. (While that may not seem like a lot, of they do say a picture is worth a thousand words.) Similar to Twitter, the default setting within the platform is that anyone can see your photos on your profile, but there is an option to modify those settings so only those who get approval have access. Keep in mind, however, that users can still view your profile photo, bio, and followers, and can send you a direct message. The app also allows location tagging, which is something to avoid.
Snapchat is an application similar to Instant Messenger, but it also allows users to send photos and drawings in addition to text. The photos sent directly to friends disappear from Snapchat’s servers after the allotted 24-hour period expires. Unlike some of the other platforms, Snapchat users must add friends for them to be able to interact. If someone unknown to you tries to send a “snap” (snapshot) the user will be notified that the someone wants to add them as a friend.
You can tweak two Snapchat privacy settings for improved security. Settings to change are who can send you snaps and who can view your “Stories.” For snaps, users can choose either “everyone” or “my friends only.” For stories, there are three options: “everyone,” “my friends,” and “custom” to hand-select who can view (ID Wise, 2017).
Social media is fun. And it’s easy to start using popular networking platforms without thinking of the privacy implications of our personal information sharing. But it’s important to consider what could happen with what you are sharing, and be responsible with your personal information.
This post has presented some ways to help social media consumers improve the privacy and security of their online information. But despite the sensible steps we can take, we should always remember that the internet is wide open, and there really is no such thing as privacy online. It is up to you to make sure you’re protected against the things you can predict, so you can better deal with the things you can’t.
Be social. Stay social. #UMSocial
Post written by McKenna Whipple, Social Media Content Strategist at The University of Michigan.
Bennett, Shea. (2013). 9 Tips For Keeping Your Internet (And Social Media) Use Private. AdWeek.
Dan Noyes. (2018). The Top 20 Valuable Facebook Statistics. Zephoria Digital Marketing.
I.D. Wise (2017). How to Manage Your Social Media Privacy Settings. The University of Texas at Austin: Center For Identity.
LSA College of Literature Science and the Arts. Social Media For Personal Use. The University of Michigan.
Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris, and Mark Hansen. (2018). The Follower Factory. The New York Times.