Facebook Files: self-censorship and social media

What aren’t you saying and why does Facebook care so much?

By Sophie Isbister, Life & Style Editor

I always assumed that people were second-guessing their status updates and comments on Facebook—and then the social media giant confirmed last month that yes, people self-censor, and yes, Facebook has access to this unsent information.

Slate.com reported in December that Facebook published a “study of the self-censorship behavior collected from 5-million English-speaking Facebook users,” using data collected from information that Facebook gets from your browser. They don’t know what you write, but they do know that an alarming (to them) number of people are typing stuff, then deleting before they hit send.

But why does Facebook even care about what we choose not to share? Because as with any free, mainly ad-funded social media site, when you use Facebook you are not the consumer but the product. Slate.com’s Jennifer Golbeck elaborates: “Facebook considers your thoughtful discretion about what to post as bad, because it withholds value from Facebook and from other users. Facebook monitors those unposted thoughts to better understand them, in order to build a system that minimizes this deliberate behavior.” Facebook doesn’t want you to hold anything back, because what you post creates valuable clicks for them.

Because I spend a lot of time thinking about social media in general and Facebook in particular, I already have a few reasons up my sleeve for why people would avoid saying things. For one, it’s Facebook’s share-everything-you-do model. The model itself breeds self-censorship and shuts down discourse.

For example, I occasionally see posts on my newsfeed that I would really rather not see—often, this isn’t because someone has shared it, it’s because they have commented on it. I can usually take it on good authority that a friend of mine would be commenting on offensive or disturbing content merely to take a stand against such content, but that doesn’t change the fact that due to how Facebook works, the mere act of interacting with a post further disseminates it.

So, people who want to take offence to a particular post must wrestle with a dilemma: speak out against the offending content while knowing that you will be exposing a good percentage of your friend group to said content, or just let it slide and go unchecked.

I think it’s important to show a little self-censorship in social media. After all, now everyone from Aunt Mildred to second-cousin Susan is on the website, sending you invites to Candy Crush Saga and posting photos of their holiday centrepieces. It’s more crucial than ever, as we see generations growing up with Facebook in their lives from day one, that we teach ourselves that online communication is as public and lasting as communication can get.

Facebook does indeed create an atmosphere where people self-censor, but likely no more so than the amount people would self-censor if they were screaming in a crowded mall or classroom. So, while Facebook says keep the posts free-flowing, I say clam up a bit. Nobody wants to be friends with an Olivia Overshare!