Facebook’s Public Discourse over Privacy

Posted on June 1, 2010. Filed under: Measurement, Public Relations, Social Media | Tags: , , , , |

Facebook is in the news a lot lately regarding privacy, but  it’s not new: A Factiva search reveals that for the roughly five month period from July 1 – December 8 2009, there were 3, 482 mentions of ‘Facebook and privacy.’  But this time it’s different: in the roughly five months since, there were just under 70,000. And, the tone of the discourse is overwhelmingly negative. What happened?

On December 9, Facebook issued a press release to publicize a “transition tool” to aid users in taking advantage of multiple changes they made to their service. It downplayed the changes to the company’s privacy policy and weren’t explicit about how much of their users’ information would be publicly available after the change. Close watchers of the company began to question the changes.

The press release alone didn’t cause any noticeable buzz: A Factiva search of “Facebook and privacy” for 1-8 December found an average of 35 mentions per day, while a search for the same terms from 9-31 December found 33 per day. And the chart of average daily mentions below reconfirms the chart above that January was pretty quiet regarding privacy as well.

The dramatic, continuous groundswell of mentions began on February 17 when Facebook announced a second major change to its privacy settings. This time Facebook used a blog post from a software engineer, and it appears that the change in medium helped bring different results, but the messaging also had a lot to do with it.

The company’s December release touted that the changes would help people connect and share and explained that they’d taken privacy into consideration when they engineered the new default settings and fine-grained controls. Facebook was telling users to trust them to continue their stewardship of users’ privacy. The blog explained that Facebook would now extend the December changes to third party content and again assured users that Facebook would protect them and improve their experience.

As the chart shows, there was plenty of discussion about Facebook and privacy, but more was in store. In April, days after Facebook’s spokesman explained to The Washington Post that Facebook would provide a universal opt-out, an IT security firm released a survey which found that 95% of respondents thought Facebook’s privacy changes were “a bad thing.” They also lamented that most Facebook users are unaware of safe privacy settings and the confusing nature of Facebook’s privacy controls.

While Facebook must have seen the groundswell forming, better media analysis would have allowed them to understand the nuances of the negative tone shaping their coverage. A deeper understanding of the specific conversations people were having and how they were evolving could have allowed them to properly calibrate their messages and PR strategy.

By mid-May, several major influencers spoke out against Facebook, and in the last week there have been extensive negative articles in major outlets. Predictably, this week Mr. Zuckerberg announced – in a letter to a tech blogger – that Facebook would add simpler privacy controls.

Damien DuPont is a report writer and quality assurance specialist in the Dow Jones Media Lab and is based in New York.

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