Self-Censorship on Facebook

Ever start writing a post or comment on Facebook, but ultimately decide against sharing it? You wouldn’t be alone. We found that 71% of Facebook users exhibited some form of “last-minute” self-censorship over 17 days.

More specifically, users refrained from sharing 33% of the posts, and 13% of the comments, that they began writing.

Overall self-censorship rates, broken down across product usage. Comments are represented in the left chart, and posts are on the right.

Overall self-censorship rates, broken down across product usage. Comments are represented in the left chart, and posts in the right. The aggregation of all comments and posts are represented with the “comments” and “posts” label, respectively.

While last minute self-censorship is generally prevalent, the frequency of self-censorship does seem to vary by the nature of the content (e.g., is it a post or a comment?) and the context surrounding it (e.g., is it a status update or an event post?). Indeed, status updates (34%) and posts within Facebook groups (38%) were censored far more frequently than posts on friends’ timelines (25%) or events (25%).

The frequency of self-censorship for comments did not vary as drastically as with posts, though comments on photos (15%) and on group posts (14%) were censored more than comments on timeline posts (12%) and status updates (11%).

The decision to self-censor, thus, seems to be partially driven by two simple principles:

  • People censor more when their audience is harder to define, and
  • People censor more when the relevance or topicality of a CMC “space” is narrower.

In other words, undirected content that might be read by anyone is censored frequently, but so is very specifically directed content. After all, knowing one’s audience is only one part of the battle. A known audience is a double-edged sword: Topics relevant to the group may be easier to share, but fewer thoughts, statements, or photos may be considered relevant to the group.

Overall, a user’s “perceived audience” does indeed seem to lie at the heart of the matter, but the effect is not always straightforward.

We also found that:

  • People with more boundaries to regulate self-censor more;
  • Males self-censor more posts than females;
  • People who exercise more control over their audience self-censor more content; and,
  • Users with more politically and age diverse friends self-censor less, in general.

For more, see our full paper, Self-Censorship on Facebook.

Sauvik Das, Carnegie Mellon University
Adam Kramer, Facebook

2 thoughts on “Self-Censorship on Facebook

  1. Given the recent PRISM revelations, do you think users understand that Facebook receives information about posts even if the user chooses to last-minute self-censor?

    • Good question. It’s hard to say, given that some users may not understand the technical underpinnings of various features. Mentions (typing in the name of a friend magically becomes a link to their timeline) requires some form of input monitoring, for example. “Enter-to-submit”, likewise, requires some input monitoring. But it’s unclear if users understand that.

      I’ll say this, as I mention in the paper: no actual unshared content was sent back to the server. The instrumentation was entirely client side, and only a binary value that content was entered was registered.

Comments are closed.