It's nearly impossible to avoid social media networks. If you refuse to sign up, you may miss out on events with friends, news, and the latest meme jokes that everyone talks about. But you will also miss out on their social media data collection, which mines your accounts for useful personal information about you – and your contacts.
Social media apps appear to be "free" to users, but the companies behind them, Facebook/Meta being the largest, make billions of dollars by selling user data. Facebook's revenue was nearly $118 billion in 2021, up from $85 billion in 2020.
By the numbers, not having a social media footprint is almost unheard of among American adults, as the platforms claim billions of members worldwide. For instance:
- Facebook leads the social media environment with nearly 3 billion monthly active users.
- YouTube, WhatsApp, and Instagram each have about 2 billion monthly active users.
- WeChat has about 1.25 billion, and TikTok has about 1 billion monthly active users.
- Seina Weibo, QQ, Telegram, and SnapChat each have 500-575 million monthly active users.
What Data is Collected by Social Media Apps?
There are few laws in the United States regarding the type of data collected. Virginia, Colorado, and California have some laws allowing users to opt out of some data collection, sales, and storage of personal data, but critics call them weak. In Europe, a set of laws called the GDPR is much more stringent; Facebook was fined $5 billion for violating it. Still, social media sites and apps collect almost every bit of data that your device allows.
- They collect information on your "likes" and other reactions to what people post.
- They collect all of the contact information on your device. This data includes email addresses, phone numbers, and other information on colleagues, friends, and relatives without their express consent.
- They collect your location using the GPS on your computer or phone and your IP address.
- They collect your interactions with online advertisements.
- They collect information on other websites you visit and your online searches.
- They collect biometrics used for facial recognition programs.
How is it Collected?
Data is collected by tracking every keystroke and link used while online. It is not limited to social media sites, as many gaming apps have advertising trackers that will report your data back to social media sites. As a result, even when your social media apps like Instagram are not in use, they will receive information about your online activity.
If you visit a social media site through a browser like Chrome or Explorer, the browser is likely to track you using cookies. If you use social media through downloaded apps, they will track you. While you may opt-out of some tracking, just having an account allows most social media platforms to collect and share or sell your data to others.
Check to make sure your privacy settings limit the data collected from you, not just who can see what you post.
How the Data is Used
Advertisers want to know as much as possible about their potential customers, so they buy data to target advertising to specific groups. Their responses also inform advertisers about how effective the ad is, including its appearance, sound, and phrasing.
In general, data is used to "improve" the visitor experience, which means a variety of things, such as:
- Showing ads that are more likely to appeal to you, given your previous browsing, shopping, and history of "clicks."
- Using cookies that track you and which may enable certain website functions. Without them, the site may appear less colorful, or there may be fewer photos and activities to access.
- Applying algorithms to your searches and likes to predict what you'll be shopping for in the future, such as baby furniture, honeymoon trips, clothing for a new job, or moving companies for relocating.
- Use deep web information, including biometrics from your fitness and menstruation tracking apps, to predict a possible pregnancy before you are aware of it.
There is a cost for everything, even using "free" social media apps. In this case, the price is your privacy and your personal data. Many people feel that it's fruitless to change settings to reduce or eliminate data sharing, but the smaller one's online footprint, the more difficult it is to steal their identity. Social media has been used nefariously to trick people into giving their mother's maiden names and birthdates, information that is often used in computer security questions.
History also shows that social media exists for much more than sharing pet photos and new baby milestones. During one election cycle, Facebook allowed a company called Cambridge Analytica to scrape user data as well as data of users' friends. The information, which went beyond what's traditionally allowed in data collection, was used to support the political campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Their method involved building psychographic profiles of voters who might be swayed to vote in favor of their candidates. In the United Kingdom, the technique was used to turn voters against the European Union, resulting in the famous Brexit vote. When the scope of the data grab was revealed, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission and 500,000 British pounds.