Social media privacy - an online oxymoron?

Written by a NortonLifeLock employee


Over 22 weeks in late 2015, Hipster Barbie captivated the internet, becoming an online sensation with over 1.3 million followers on Instagram. Hipster Barbie, or socalitybarbie to go by her username, was a carefully curated parody Instagram account that exemplified generation Y with dreamy lighting, selfies, adventures, and a relatability that ran a little too real for many social account users.

The brainchild of photographer Darby Cisneros, Hipster Barbie was the perfect representation of how we use social media to tell stories about our lives. We’re living through a filter, displaying only the things we want others to see.

While Hipster Barbie highlighted the lengths many people go to to present certain aspects of our lives, it also shone a light on the notion of online privacy. Hipster Barbie led an entire, detailed version of a real life, just like many of the millions of accounts that inspired Cisneros to pick up her camera and create the account. Take a look through any of the millions of real accounts and you’ll come away with a detailed picture of the life of the account owner.

While users might be increasingly careful about what they post, social media privacy is a bomb primed to explode. Just what do social platforms do with all our information? Who owns photos we share on cloud-based services like Instagram?

Social privacy

To develop its ad options, Facebook collects huge amounts of demographic and psychographic information on its users – everything from sexual preference to films and sites you like.

In 2011, an interactive horror short film called Take This Lollipop highlighted how easily accessible the majority of Facebook accounts are. Written and directed by Jason Zada, the interactive experience connects to a user’s Facebook account and takes them on a horrifying journey of discovery.

In the film, a Facebook stalker rifles through the user’s personal information, including publicly available photos, personal information, and intimate details. A viral smash, the video detailed how much information we freely give away about our lives in the pursuit of engagement and interaction.

While the film was a success, social media has given way to far more threatening social behaviours. In the wake of Irish concert venue - Slane 2013, photos of a young girl performing a sex act were widely spread around social media, with users even going so far as to identify the girl in the video.

In 2014, a breach of a third party site saw a 14GB file of low-res private photos and videos sent via Snapchat leak online on Reddit, 4chan and social media. While Snapchat videos and photos are built to ‘self-destruct’ or disappear, many young people were using third party apps to covertly save and store videos and photos. In 2015, dating site Ashley Madison was hacked and account details were widely shared online and over social media.

Location sharing or geo-tagging is another big concern: check in at the airport with your family and you’re broadcasting that no one is at home to an entire network. Given the huge amount of data and information readily available on social media (much of it we share ourselves), identity theft, stalking, accidental viral fame, surveillance and online bullying are huge concerns.

Even a harmless photo shared on social media can cause trouble. Artist Richard Prince downloaded and exhibited dozens of photos from Instagram. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars from the stolen photos. And it’s not even illegal. Prince side-steps copyright laws by removing the captions and writing his own.

While social media is a large problem for online privacy, it doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. Privacy is possible, though it does mean limiting reach. On Facebook, you can hide your account from search engines, prevent it from tracking you, limit the information they use in ads, enable two-factor authentication, and turn off location tagging. On Twitter and Instagram, you can set your account to private so only your followers can see what you post. The same goes for Snapchat and only adding people you know.

Online privacy is an oxymoron and regardless of how carefully curated an account is, we’re often broadcasting far more than we mean to on our social accounts. Unfortunately, the only true way to keep your social life entirely private is to stay away from social media altogether.

What’s the best way to keep your family protected in the online world? Try Norton Family Premier to give you the tools to actively encourage safe online habits.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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