Social Media: Privacy Controls and Perceptions Across Cultures

(Editor’s Note: Some students in the International Media program at American University are now researching their final capstone projects. These projects will take the form of either scholarly papers, or professional and creative projects. We are posting proposals and updates on these projects to demonstrate their progress.)

by Erin Weston
Special to Sutradhar’s Market

Social media sites were credited over the past year by several news organizations as being the key to fueling revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa. (For more on this subject, please see:  “A Deeper Dialogue on the Media’s Role in ‘The Twitter Revolutions’.”)  Millions of people connect every day — often uninterrupted via mobile apps — to sites like Facebook and Twitter as a way to socialize, organize, become familiar with new acquaintances, and connect to study groups online. But social media sites also have certain undesirable effects — namely, their functionality is often antithetical to traditional concepts of personal privacy.

Theories of privacy have been around long before the internet, since Alan Westin and Irwin Altman’s pioneering work in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But with the advent of an online age in the globalized world, social media are taking center stage in terms of online privacy concerns. The tension has started public debates over governance, privacy policies, and the right to privacy on the internet. The White House unveiled an online privacy plan last week, highlighting ongoing public concerns of personal information protection and calling for an online bill of rights. But is this what users want?

The unprecedented amount of personal information posted and shared by users could implicate the acceptance of an internet future without the assumption of privacy. It could also mean that when weighing the costs and benefits, users would rather connect to one another than withdraw their online presence, despite their dissatisfaction with current privacy policies. No matter the case, social media sites often request or require personal information for use and users are contributing that information in exchange for their free profiles.

Researchers have investigated perceptions of online privacy through several lenses. Drawing from Westin and Altman’s theories of privacy, Sabine Trepte and Leonard Reinecke focused on psychological privacy and the possibility of “authentic living” in an online setting; Nicole Kramer and Nina Haferkamp looked at impression construction; Kevin Lewis compared social network ties and online privacy behavior; and Jochen Peter and Patti Valkenburg examined impacts of age on privacy concerns. Other studies have examined policy opinions, gender impact, and technological concerns for online privacy.

My project examines the issue of online privacy concerns on social media sites across cultures. In the spirit of Dr. Azza Mohamed and Hichang Cho, Milagros Rivera-Sanchez, and Sun Sun Lim’s studies on the impact of culture on privacy concerns, it will survey university students from universities in two multinational cities — Washington, D.C. and Istanbul, Turkey — about their attitudes toward disclosing personal information and their behavioral use of online privacy controls. The study compares similar populations in multinational cities, thus evoking the cultural impact on perceptions of privacy.  Ultimately, my research will contribute to understanding differences in online privacy perceptions and behaviors across cultures. In addition, I will look at the impact of gender and skill level, as well as the level of trust users have that social media sites will not share their personal information.

(For more on the origins of this series of posts, please see:  “Education:  Sparking Research in International Media.”)

(Photo by Alan Cleaver of Whitehaven, Cumbria, U.K. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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