New research on privacy management in private Facebook groups

Portrait of Ameera Mansour

Social Networking Sites make it easy to find others to discuss things with on both a superficial and a deeper level. Ameera Mansour, in her work towards her doctoral thesis at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, has examined people’s everyday life information practices on Social Networking Sites, and how they relate to the opportunities and challenges of seeking and sharing information through these sites. A few years ago, she chose to take a closer look at Facebook groups for mothers who have moved to Sweden. At that time, she herself was the mother of a small child and relatively new to Sweden.

“One of these groups was particularly dynamic and active, and that fascinated me. Although the group is private and you can only be invited in by another member, it has grown steadily and has several thousand members,” said Ameera Mansour, who titled her article Collective Privacy Management Practices: A study of privacy strategies and risks in a private Facebook group, together with co-author Helena Francke, Associate Professor at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science.

The study interviews about 20 people, including 19 members and one group administrator of a private Facebook group, about their thoughts and actions in relation to the risks involved in disclosing information in the group. Here, members share highs and lows, from mundane day-to-day questions about buying children's clothes or tips on local playgrounds and schools, to more private questions seeking support and advice about parenting, relationships, and working life.

The interviewed members expressed great concern regarding privacy, a concern that is justified. Some examples from the group have to do with how a member's questions about Swedish labour law was leaked to her employer – which affected her negatively. Ameera Mansour describes how even seemingly neutral or carefully formulated posts can, if read by the wrong people or in the wrong context, lead to negative consequences. One example is a member who wrote a post about a babysitter she hired, which was screenshotted by another member and sent to  the babysitter.

Protective Privacy strategies

The article’s authors categorised the ways the interviewees managed their privacy in the group into three strategies.

The first strategy is about protecting the group's privacy by protecting the group from outside threats. In this strategy, the group is made "private" instead of being searchable by everyone and only current members can find and add new members. New members also need to answer some questions before they can be added to the group.

The second strategy describes how privacy is protected from the inside, against members’ sharing information outside the group. To that end, there are group rules against leaking other members’ information and posts outside the group and whomever does so will be removed from the group.

“The risks are linked to the lack of anonymity; because this is a local group and you join with your real name, there is a possibility that unexpected connections to other members can occur, such as if someone who knows you, your partner, or your employer sees posts you have made.”

Some members also create smaller private subgroups or send private messages to each other. Members also ask group administrators or friends to post on their behalf so they remain anonymous.

The third strategy has to do with each individual's approach, said Ameera Mansour. “Some of the members censor themselves by never posting, while others only post information that is so general and harmless that it does not matter who reads it.”

Fills a knowledge gap

Ameera Mansour points out that the interviewed members were aware of the risks and restrained about what they write in the Facebook group. However, there are many examples of other types of posts, where members share information of a more private and sensitive nature.

Overall, the research extends knowledge about the risks of information disclosure on Social Networking Sites, and the complex nature of privacy management, in large online groups where members’ identities can be easily identifiable.  The researchers also provide design recommendations to companies behind social networking services to enhance privacy management tools for members of large online groups to support their privacy challenges and needs. They call for, among other things, an increased possibility for group members to be aware of who other members are, that members should be able to control how long a post is visible, and that the person who publishes a post should receive a notification if someone else takes a screenshot of their post.

“In the time since we submitted our article for review, Facebook has actually implemented one of our proposals. Members can now post anonymously and administrators can approve the post before publishing. But we also think that anyone who comments on someone else's post should be able to remain anonymous. Today, if someone wants to respond to a sensitive question, such as on the topic of miscarriage, you cannot comment anonymously,” said Ameera Mansour.

You have been following the research and developments regarding personal privacy in social media since 2015. What trends do you see?
“There is a lot of talk about ‘cancel culture’ today, and who knows how things will develop in five years' time? We do not know how what we write in social networks today will be interpreted in the future. A clear trend is that it is becoming more common for people to leave, for example, Facebook for other social networks where they can be anonymous, such as Reddit and Tumblr.”

Collective Privacy Management Practices: A study of privacy strategies and risks in a private Facebook group (Mansour & Francke, 2021) will be published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction (PACM HCI), and Ameera Mansour will present the article at the 24th ACM conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW2021) in October.

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Read the article Collective Privacy Management Practices: A study of privacy strategies and risks in a private Facebook group (Mansour & Francke, 2021)

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