A third of all status updates written on Facebook are deleted instead of published because the author thinks better of revealing controversial opinions, according to new research.
We are all aware that Facebook knows a lot about us: who our friends are, where we work and our political leanings. But the company has just released a paper which reveals that it tracks when we start to write - but do not publish - comments and post, something which researchers call “self-censorship”.
Facebook monitored 3.9 million users in the US and UK over 17 days in the summer of 2012 and tracked when they started to write messages but later abandoned them. Posts were only counted if at least five characters were entered, to prevent noise from accidental key presses, and were counted as censored if they had not been posted within ten minutes.
It was found that 71pc of people censored themselves at some point during the experiment, with 51pc deleting at least one post and choosing to leave 4.52 unpublished on average over the period. Another 44 per cent censored comments, with an average of 3.2 going unpublished.
A total of 15pc started to write a comment on a friend’s photograph, only to delete it once they thought better of it. Males censored themselves more often than women, it was shown, and older users tended to censor themselves less than younger users.
In total, 33pc of all updates that are started on Facebook go unpublished, as do 13pc of all comments, leading researchers to conclude that self-censorship is a “common practice” on the social network. With comments, only 13pc that are started never see the light of day.
Social networks collapse many social circles into one – what one friend sees is seen by all. So some of us get half way through typing a message and then think better of it because of a small subset of our friends who may be offended or irritated by it, say the authors of the paper, Sauvik Das, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon and intern at Facebook, and Adam Kramer, a Facebook data scientist.
The paper suggested that people were unwilling to “diverge from perceived social norms” or because of a fear of “spamming” friends and family with “uninteresting or unnecessary content”. The researchers found that those with more politically diverse friends censored themselves less often.
Facebook hopes to use the data to improve the social network. For instance, if people refrain from posting content that some friends would appreciate because it would be perceived as “spam” by others, they may look at ways to target who sees which updates.
The researchers noted that the Google+ social network allows users to create “circles” of contacts and only share certain updates with certain circles. They admit that this could mean that Google+ users self-censor less often.
The average age of the users monitored for the research was 30.9 years old and they had been using Facebook for an average of 1,386 days. Although the company monitored when text was entered by a user, it did not track what the text contained.