Self Censorship On Facebook: Facebook Can Read Your Un-Posted Posts

Turns out that when your Facebook status box asks you, "What's on your mind?", it isn't just a prompt: Facebook genuinely wants to know, even when you never finish your thought. According to a research paper, "Self Censorship On Facebook," published by a former Facebook engineering intern Sauvik Das and a current data scientist at the company, Adam Kramer, Facebook gets to listen in to our unfinished thoughts by monitoring when we self-censor — i.e. when we type, but don't wind up hitting "Post."

Before everyone gets all "NSA! NSA!" about this, it's not quite like that exhaustive trawling of data by the federal government. As Slate wrote, it's actually weirder: Facebook not only collects the data, they want to understand why we self-censor.

Slate explained the process of how Facebook collects the data of the 71 percent of users that the authors caught self-censoring. As they point out, it's sort of like how Gmail saves your drafts by catching what you type in the text box:

The study examined aborted status updates, posts on other people's timelines, and comments on others' posts. To collect the text you type, Facebook sends code to your browser. That code automatically analyzes what you type into any text box and reports metadata back to Facebook.

As far as privacy goes, this is a mega-gray area: A Facebook spokesperson said it fell under their policy's domain of the company collecting information when you "interact with things." And as Dak and Kramer point out, Facebook isn't collecting what we write — but that we never posted it.

Major ethical questions aside, we all know that Facebook can collect are things you've decided to share online. But Facebook collecting and analyzing what you deliberately chose not to share is another thing entirely. It's almost violating. And they're definitely interested in your self-censorship:

... It’s clear that Facebook is interested in the content of your self-censored posts. Das and Kramer’s article closes with the following: "we have arrived at a better understanding of how and where self-censorship manifests on social media; next, we will need to better understand what and why."
... This may be closer to the recent revelation that the FBI can turn on a computer's webcam without activating the indicator light to monitor criminals. People surveilled through their computers’ cameras aren’t choosing to share video of themselves, just as people who self-censor on Facebook aren’t choosing to share their thoughts. The difference is that the FBI needs a warrant but Facebook can proceed without permission from anyone.

So: why? The paper's authors say it has to do with "content generation," meaning that knowing your unfinished thoughts could help advertisers help target ads better. Basically, typing, "God, I f*cking hate this f*cking paper. Writing is the WOR-" could theoretically trigger a sketchy "Need essay-writing help?" ad.

And then, say the authors, Facebook is just looking out for you: "Consider, for example, the college student who wants to promote a social event for a special interest group, but does not for fear of spamming his other friends—some of who may, in fact, appreciate his efforts."

Okay, whatever. So two people don't show up to a party for Otter Awareness Week. Big deal.