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Originally published: 2012-10-29 11:56:52
Last modified: 2012-10-29 11:56:52

ASU assistant professor examining privacy in social media

by Susan King

In just eight years since it was launched, Facebook has changed the way friends, relatives and even businesses interact, but at what cost?

Hongwei "Chris" Yang, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Appalachian State University, is an expert in advertising using the Internet, mobile devices and social media. His current research focuses on information privacy, information disclosure and privacy protection -- all matters of increasing concern for individuals who use Facebook as a primary means of communication.

 "As an advertising professor, I know that the more personal information young people disclose in social media, such as Facebook, the happier online companies and Internet advertisers will be," Yang said. "Inside knowledge of the consumer enables these media to achieve more precise and effective targeted advertising or marketing activities. Young people might feel it awesome to share their personal information with friends freely and effortlessly through social media, without realizing that they have traded their valuable personal information with online advertisers. Social networking websites such as Facebook make huge profits by monetizing consumers' online privacy and, more often than not, they abuse the privilege."

Through multiple mechanisms -- news feeds, timelines, walls -- it's possible to offer a moment-by-moment accounting of a person's thoughts, observations, conversations or activities, all of which may be shared by comment or message or video or text, or all of these and more, simultaneously. Remarkably, millions of people do this all day long, and in extraordinary detail.

 "Personal information disclosed by Facebook users might come back to haunt or hurt them," Yang said. 

For example, more and more recruiters and employers attempt to access the Facebook profiles of job applicants as a way of obtaining informal character references or background checks. 

Facebook's privacy policy allows users to choose who can see their information. However, finding these tools can be an exercise in frustration. Yang recommends using https://www.facebook.com/safety/tools/ to set or check Facebook privacy settings.

"Once a user is inside the private account settings, it's relatively simple to change the default setting from 'public' to 'friends' or 'close friends' or 'custom,'" Yang said.  "Unfortunately, a lot of young people -- and adults -- don't bother to read Facebook's privacy policy and don't know that its default setting is 'public.' Stalkers and hackers can easily find people on Facebook if they are not careful. Also, identity theft is made easier when too much personal information is revealed and published."

Yang's research also seeks to provide valuable consumer insights that will help marketers use new media platforms effectively, efficiently and responsibly, while avoiding more government regulation.

In one study, Yang focused on young American college students' online privacy concerns, their perceptions of the balance of trust and risk involved in social media use, and their support for government and self-regulation of social media advertising.  

 "Contrary to the myth created by popular media and Silicon Valley, my research shows that, on average, young American college students are concerned about disclosing personal information on social networking websites," Yang said. "If privacy concerns are addressed appropriately, these sites might gain consumers' trust, thereby alleviating the risks of disclosing personal information online and enhancing support for industry self-regulation."

Yang said, however, that consumer's privacy concerns could lead to government intervention.

 "On the other hand, consumer's perceptions of increased risk will strengthen their support for government scrutiny of social media advertising," he said. "To convince the government that self-regulation is the right thing for the growth of this industry, social networking sites must do more to address the privacy concerns of consumers, gain their trust and mitigate perceived risks of disclosing personal information online."

Any giant leap into a new frontier brings attendant challenges. 

With seemingly unlimited options for connection, the explosive force of social media is likely to reveal increasingly complex concerns about personal privacy. In other words, may the user be very well-informed or else, beware.

Yang has published research in international and national journals dealing with communication and marketing. 

To learn more about Yang's scholarship, visit https://sites.google.com/site/chrishongweiyang/ or email him at (yangh@appstate.edu)