What do social media companies really know about you? It’s a fair question. And the quick answer is this: the more you use social media, the more those companies likely know.
The moment you examine the question more closely, the answer takes on greater depth. Consider how much we use social media for things other than connecting with friends. While that was the original intent behind social networks, the role of social media has since evolved into something far more expansive. We use it to get our news, stay up to date on when artists will drop a new release, and sometimes reach out for customer service on a company’s social media page. In some cases, we use our social media accounts to log into other sites and apps or we even make payments through social media.
Taken together, all of those likes, taps, clicks, links, and time spent reading or watching videos can add up and paint a detailed picture of who you are.
Why are they collecting all this information? Largely, it’s for two reasons:
1. To make improvements to their platform, by better understanding your behavior and ways you like to use their service.
2. To create an exacting user profile that advertisers can use for targeting ads that they think will interest you.
That’s the exchange in play here. You use the company’s social media service for free, and in return, they gain rights to gather specific information about you, which you consent to by agreeing to their terms of service.
Let’s get into the details of what social media companies may collect and know about you—along with ways you can limit the data and information they gather.
(Some of) the things social media companies may know about you
Different social media platforms have different user agreements that cover what types of information they collect and use. For starters, we’ll speak broadly about social media companies in general, and then we’ll weave in a few specific examples along the way. Generally, they may know:
- Basic information about you and the devices you use: This includes personal information that people include in their profiles, such as names, birthdates, locations, relationships, and gender. This can extend to other identifiers like IP addresses, unique device ID numbers, connection type, connection speed, your network, other devices on your network. Also, device behavior can get tracked as well. That may include whether a window is open in the foreground or background and what mouse and finger taps you make while using the service.
- What interests you: People, pages, accounts, and hashtags that are associated with you and that you interact with in some way can get tracked. Likewise, how those people, pages, and accounts associate themselves with you in return get tracked as well. All of it builds up a profile with increasing levels of detail the more you engage with others and as they engage with you.
- What makes you stick around: Social media companies may measure the frequency and duration of your interactions. The more you interact, the more likely you are to have a strong connection to certain topics and opinions—and subsequently, social media companies may suggest similar content that they believe you will engage with just as strongly. For example, Facebook puts it this way on their privacy page (as of October 2021):
We collect information about how you use our Products, such as the types of content you view or engage with; the features you use; the actions you take; the people or accounts you interact with; and the time, frequency and duration of your activities.
When you communicate with others by sending or receiving Direct Messages, we will store and process your communications and information related to them. This includes link scanning for malicious content, link shortening to http://t.co URLs, detection of spam, abuse and prohibited images, and use of reported issues. We also use information about whom you have communicated with and when (but not the content of those communications) to better understand the use of our services, to protect the safety and integrity of our platform, and to show more relevant content.
If you use our Products for purchases or other financial transactions (such as when you make a purchase in a game or make a donation), we collect information about the purchase or transaction. This includes payment information, such as your credit or debit card number and other card information; other account and authentication information; and billing, shipping and contact details.
- Where you are and where you go: Simply disabling location sharing or GPS functionality on your device does not rule out other ways that social media companies can determine your whereabouts. They can infer your location to some extent when you log in by looking at your IP address and public Wi-Fi networks, along with nearby cellular towers if you’re on mobile.
Of course, what you write and post says a lot about you too
This nearly goes without saying, yet another layer of data and information collection comes by way of the pictures and updates you post. Per Instagram (as of October 2021):
We collect the content, communications and other information you provide when you use our Products, including when you sign up for an account, create or share content, and message or communicate with others. This can include information in or about the content you provide (like metadata), such as the location of a photo or the date a file was created.
Another consideration is how the content you interact with on other sites may be shared with social media companies in return. Some social media companies partner with other third parties to gather this data, which is used to round out your user profile in yet more detail. That information can include purchases you made, how often you visited that third party’s site, and so on.
In the case of Facebook, they refer to this as “Off-Facebook Activity.” In their words:
Off-Facebook activity includes information that businesses and organizations share with us about your interactions with them. Interactions are things like visiting their website or logging into their app with Facebook. Off-Facebook activity does not include customer lists that businesses use to show a unique group of customers relevant ads.
The good news here is that you can take control of the Off-Facebook Activity setting with a few clicks.
No doubt about it, the content you create and interact with, both on the social media sites and sometimes off of them as well, can generate information about you that’s collected by social media companies.
Limiting what social media companies know about you
Short of deleting your accounts altogether, there are several things you can do to take control and limit the amount of information you share.
1. You can access, update, correct, move, and erase your data, depending on the platform.
For example, you can visit your Facebook Settings, Instagram Settings, and Twitter Settings, which each gives you options for managing your information—or download it and even delete it from their platform outright if you wish. (Note that this will likely only delete data associated with your account. Content you posted or shared with other people on their accounts will remain.)
2. Disable location sharing.
As noted above, this isn’t an absolute fix because social media companies can infer your location other ways. Yet taking this step gives them one less piece of exacting information about you.
3. Review your privacy and account settings.
Each platform will have its own settings and options, so give them a look. Here, you can determine which information advertisers are allowed to use to serve up ads to you, set rules for facial recognition, enable or disable location history, and much more. If possible, do this from your computer or laptop rather than your smartphone. Often, the account controls that you can access from a computer browser are far more comprehensive than the ones in a mobile app.
4. Consider using other messaging platforms.
Using direct messaging on social media platforms may tell social media companies even more about you and who you interact with. When possible, think about using text messaging instead or other means of communication that aren’t tied to a social media company.
5. Decouple your social media account from other apps and sites.
Some apps and sites will allow you to use your social media login instead of creating a new one. While convenient, this can provide the social media company with more information about you. Additionally, if your social media account is compromised, it could compromise the other accounts that are tied to it as well. Check your settings and look for “Apps and Websites” to see what’s connected to your social media account, what’s being shared, and how you can disable it.
6. Use online protection software.
Protection like ours will include a VPN, which anonymizes your online activity and thus may shield you from certain types of information collection, such as your location. Additionally, using online protection software is simply a good move because it can create and store strong, unique passwords for you, steer you clear of risky sites, protect your identity, and make your time online safer overall.
Know what you’re sharing
Yet you can do several things to reduce the amount of information that social media companies know about you. By spending some time on the account and privacy settings for each of your social media accounts, you can determine what information you’re providing to them and get a much better sense of what social media companies know about you.