The Atlantic recently published a piece with the headline “People Are Changing the Way They Use Social Media,” with a subhead suggesting that data and privacy breaches might be to blame.
It’s an interesting piece, and they note upfront that it is a survey they conducted and not scientific, so the results might be broadly applicable. In other words, Atlantic readers might be more attuned to privacy concerns and therefore more likely to respond to a survey asking if their habits are changing—plus, their audience is going to be skewed too and not representative of the general population.
Reports of “self-censorship” were high among this group. The act of typing out a post or a Tweet and then looking at it, revising it, and then ultimately deleting it without ever posting is an act of reflection—and an understanding of how things can unfold (or unravel) quickly on social media.
The Atlantic piece suggests that at least some social media users are pulling back, posting less personal content. They are still on social channels, but they are changing their behavior.
For advertisers and businesses, this is likely welcome news. If you are in the eyeball-chasing game, knowing that daily and monthly visits are continuing to go up matters.
However, if the long-term effect is a more aloof and surface use of social, will people continue to interact? Put another way, daily and monthly visits can go up—but what about time-on-site? How much engagement can be expected if people are posting content that is more impersonal?
The survey found that an overwhelming number (more than 78 percent) were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about privacy on social media. Older people were more likely than younger people to engage in self-censoring behavior, but fully 75 percent of respondents, regardless of age, said they self-censored posts for privacy reasons.
Facebook fared the worst on the trust issue, with nearly 60 percent (57.9) saying they had “no trust” or that they “mostly distrust” the social channel.
Pinterest and LinkedIn, by contrast, looked pretty good, with “neutral” numbers of 48.9 percent and 34.2 percent, respectively.
Most survey respondents (58.1 percent) said that the Cambridge Analytica scandal had not changed their behavior on Facebook. But, more than 40 percent said they did change their behavior—which is a sizeable portion.
How did their behavior change? As noted above, most of those who said their behavior has changed indicated they are now “more careful” about what they post (24.8 percent); others said they are posting less (19 percent) or have changed their privacy settings (19 percent).
Impact on PR programs
How could a change in user behavior affect PR programs—specifically the “shared” segment of the PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) model?
To answer this question, we first have to look at what we expect from social sharing. For most PR programs, shared channels mean message amplification, reaching audience, and generating engagement.
If people are dialing back on posting private information, this may or may not have an impact on social channel effectiveness as part of a PESO strategy—it might depend on the program.
Public affairs PR, which typically works with public policy initiatives, might be most affected. While not all public policy programs are divisive or polarizing, if individuals are moderating their behavior based on privacy around political views, a reduction in shares on policy topics could result.
PR programs that touch on anything remotely personal could be another area to watch for lower engagement rates. Medical issue groups and religious groups could fall into this category.
People’s behavior on privacy vs. their actions
On the other hand, we might see engagement and sharing rates hold fairly steady. For all of the concern people express about personal online privacy, they often do not take steps to change behavior.
Whether it’s online tracking cookies, using strong passwords, or locking down privacy settings on social media accounts, user behavior often doesn’t match concern expressed about privacy matters.
For PR, this is going to be another one of those “wait and see how it pans out” areas to watch.
It’s another reminder that a modern PR strategy must be flexible, adaptable, and not overly dependent on the effective execution of shared social media tactics.