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Friday, 20 December 2013

Outrageous! Self-censorship on Facebook

When I skimmed the abstract of a recent paper on Self-censorship on Facebook, I was left in a shock, not only as a Facebook-user, but also as a researcher and academic. In outrage, I could not even read past the second sentence which stated that the authors collected data from “3.9 million users over 17 days” examining last-minute self-censorship. This cannot be right, I thought, and surely not legal, so I went directly to Facebook’s data use policy to check what is said there about collecting and storing UNPUBLISHED data. As I suspected, although there is a section on data Facebook “receives” about its users, like clicks, views, data about the devices on which FB is installed, nowhere is it mentioned that unpublished content is being collected, too. The fact that people - without my specific consent - have been watching my keystrokes made me feel very uneasy, and made me seriously consider deleting my whole account from Facebook.

My academic curiosity, however, was stronger than my Facebook-user outrage, so I went on to read the paper. I couldn’t get too far before coming to a halt again, this time caused by the outrageously inaccurate starting sentence of the whole paper:  “Self-censorship is the act of preventing oneself from speaking”. No, it isn’t. Self-censorship is critically checking ones message before sending, perhaps deleting or amending the content according to the perceived audience or predicted response. You won’t even need to check the literature to get it right (e.g. Hayes, 2007), just check any Thesaurus online. 
But past the unsupported, generalising statements, my favourite bit is the justification of doing this research, the explanation of how last-minute self-censorship can be “hurtful”, since members “fail to achieve potential social value”, and social media sites loose out on the lack of content creation. Is the paper really saying what I am hearing? That if I decide not to post (for whatever reason), I am depriving them from valuable content (=$$$)? Yes, that is exactly what they are saying: Understanding the conditions under which censorship occurs presents an opportunity to gain further insight into both how users use  social media and how to improve  SNSs to better minimize use-cases where present solutions might unknowingly promote value diminishing self-censorship”. I really can’t get my head around this: if they wanted to do a commercial study on “value-diminishing”, why didn’t they? Why did they have to disguise this wolf in the clothing of an academic piece of work?

Luckily, in the Methodology section the authors clarify their method of data collection, and it turns out that ultimately no keystrokes were recorded, only the absence of posting in the 10 minute interval following the commencement of content creation: “Researchers were not privy to any specific user’s activity. (...) the content of self-censored posts and comments was not sent back to Facebook’s servers: Only a binary value that content was entered at all.” 
The fact, however, that they only considered posts and comments that had been started but not published shows a very skewed picture about the whole issue of “self-censorship”. How about if I re-write the text of my posts/comments so that it does not contain the message I originally intended to share? Or even worse, I decide to delete a post one minute after it has been published? 
In this light, I am not sure what their finding of 71% of self-censorship means. Oh wait, they don’t know either: We suspect, in fact, that all users employ last-minute self-censorship on Facebook at some point. The remaining 29% of users in our sample likely didn’t have a chance to self-censor over the short duration of the study.” The rest of the paper gives a very detailed account of how user-related factors (such as age, gender and the scale and variety of networks) affect the frequency of “self-censorship”, but the ultimate conclusion they arrive to is that the users’ decision whether to publish a post or comment is hugely influenced by the perceived audience. Kinda old story though, don't you think Dr Bell?

Bell, A. (1984). Language style as audience design. Language in Society, 13(2), 145-204.
Das, S., & Kramer, A. (2013). Self-censorship on facebook. International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM),
Hayes, A. F. (2007). Exploring the forms of Self‐Censorship: On the spiral of silence and the use of opinion expression avoidance strategies. Journal of Communication, 57(4), 785-802.

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