Media Competence regarding Facebook Privacy Settings

Are users just too incompetent to protect their private data?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Index of contents



Phase 1: Forming a Research Question

Phase 2: Literature Review
Theoretical Approach

Phase 3: Theory Framework of Research Design
Quantitative Approach

Phase 4: Target Group

Phase 5: Choosing the Methodology
Ethical Concerns

Phase 6: Survey

Phase 7: Data analysis, Interpretation and Presentation

Phase 8: Limitation
Problems with the methodology
Problems with the research question
Problems with the target group

Phase 9: Conclusion




In September 2012 Facebook welcomed the one billionth user and can therefore be entitled as the current biggest social interaction platform worldwide. With growing success since its launch in February 2004 questions about privacy security for user data became a growing issue as well. With expanding user numbers these questions seem to become louder than ever.

During the years the Facebook has been on international focus for several privacy flaws for instance in 2005 for not encrypting users’ passwords, in 2006 for publishing every single friend activity without any restriction possibilities in a news feed on the personal start page or in 2007 the implementation of a platform for applications by third-party suppliers.

In academic treatments about privacy made so far mainly Facebook itself was putted on the spot and accused of violating their user’s privacy. The social network giant was blamed to treat their user’s privacy too carelessly and to make the matter worse Facebook became more and more commercial – with personal data as currency. The start of showing presence at the stock market in 2011 was just the logical consequence of this new company policy.

The two latest critic points Facebook needed to defend for were the standard settings for the privacy interface within the context of the new timeline optic and the latest change in Facebook privacy terms. Both changes happened in 2012. After doing some first superficial research it seemed like there is no academic study so far that does not focus on Facebook as a company in charge regarding this matter. But one could wonder if the users themselves are in charge as well. Are we exhausting our options to protect our private data on Facebook? While Facebook’s privacy flaws are well examined, relatively little literature is available on how much users know and care about these issues. My assumption is that most of the users aren’t doing much about the assumed lack of privacy beyond venting about it.


As a consequence to the section above this research project examines Facebook users awareness of privacy issues, risks of utilizing Facebook and their responsibility or rather media competence handling these issues. While doing so, the project is limited on the category privacy settings as it is part of the Facebook user interface and on how users deal with the official privacy policies and terms of Facebook. Partly covered will be general understanding and information level regarding privacy issues. Purposely excluded on the other hand are privacy issues regarding third party suppliers, sharing and photo matters, game services, applications and all other possibilities to reveal private data into the WWW through Facebook for covering these topics would make the study even broader than it is already. More specific questions focusing on just one or two core aspects promise more adequate results.

I will collect data by survey and ground the results on the educational and pedagogical theories that play an important role for defining my key term. Furthermore, I will engage the received data with selected theories and case studies that have been relevant for the chosen research topic.

Phase 1: Forming a Research Question

“Research questions and hypotheses narrow the purpose statement and become major signposts for readers.”[1] Depending on the kind of research design the researcher uses there are inseparable differences in forming the research question. The right choice can be essential for the whole research process because “numerous scholars have reiterated the fact that research questions are shaped by the purpose of a study and in turn form the methods and the design of the investigation”[2].

Qualitative research designs on the one hand require a central question and associated sub-questions for they are broader to give room for answers. Quantitative designs on the other hand aim for hypotheses, research questions and sometimes objectives including dependent or independent variables. Hypotheses in quantitative research can try to predict the outcome of a study based on trends apparent from previous research on this topic (directional or alternative hypothesis) whereas null hypotheses predict that in general population no difference regarding certain relations or differences exists between groups on a variable. The third form of hypotheses is a nondirectional hypothesis. It claims the existence of a certain relation but it can’t predict what that relation is about. Mixed method research designs can use mixed method questions of both the designs mentioned above.[3]

According to the first literature review and finding about that topic so far tendency is to use a quantitative research design for the reason of receiving a mass of information. Researchers usually form a research question for quantitative studies. “However, a more formal statement of research employs hypotheses.”[4] The following directional main hypothesis is relating to the content grounded on prior literature and studies that are going to be described in the following chapter. The main hypothesis makes a prediction about the expected outcome:

(1) Most of the issues regarding Facebook privacy and the unintentional revelation of private information arise from choices the users themselves make because the average Facebook user is simply not competent enough to use this social network properly. Further assumptions are that:
(2) The benefit received from Facebook as a product let users overrule their privacy concerns.
(3) A saver use of Facebook regarding privacy settings requires a general higher level of media competence.
(4) Facebook users have a limited media competence regarding privacy issues and therefore they make little use of their privacy settings.

Phase 2: Literature Review

A literature review can help figuring out what has been written so far about the chosen topic and provides a framework for an own study problem.

Facebook is an unexampled success story in the young history of social networks. The platform was just founded in 2004 but since then the initiators can be happy about an unstoppable increase of popularity and participant numbers. But the more popular it became the more slipped the network in the center of international press attention. Numerous newspaper articles and reports according to Facebook’s privacy agenda can be found in the press as well as on the internet. Figuratively spoken, the internet which once was the birth place of Facebook tends to become more and more its grave, too. As a starting basis for that critical development I want to mention the report of the watchdog organization Privacy International. They published A Race to the Bottom in 2007 which basically listed big internet service companies and put them in order regarding their level of privacy protection. Facebook and six other companies with severe privacy flaws were put it in the second worst category for substantial and comprehensive privacy threats. The data collection of Facebook was based on “Earlier concerns about data matching, data mining and transfers to other companies (even the CIA). Collects data from 'other sources', including newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (e.g., photo tags)“ (Appendix III).

Much has been changed on Facebook since then but it could never succeed eliminating its damaged reputation of violating user privacy. Additionally, founder Mark Zuckerberg really stuck his foot in his mouth with the following statement he gave in January 2010 (quoted by the Guardian):

“The rise of social networking online means that people no longer have an expectation of privacy, according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Talking at the Crunchie awards in San Francisco this weekend, the 25-year-old chief executive of the world's most popular social network said that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’. ‘People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,’ he said. ‘That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.’ Zuckerberg said that the rise of social media reflected changing attitudes among ordinary people, adding that this radical change has happened in just a few years.”[5]

However, Facebook doesn’t seem to make good impression on the press when it comes to privacy issues. But besides news attention it became also an attractive object for scholar work. There is a high amount more or less professional studies in several languages existing that focus on Facebook’s privacy issues. The predominant analysis in this field put emphasis on unintended personal information revelation caused by Facebook’s non-transparent privacy settings. One of the latest and also well known publications is a Columbia University study examining the efficacy of social networks’ privacy settings. The study with the title The Failure of Online Social Network Privacy Settings was published in 2011. They figured out that “Increasingly, people are sharing sensitive personal information via online social networks (OSN). While such networks do permit users to control what they share with whom, access control policies are notoriously difficult to configure correctly; this raises the question of whether OSN users' privacy settings match their sharing intentions.”[6] With an empirical evaluation they come to the result “that the current approach to privacy settings is fundamentally flawed and cannot be fixed.”[7] “Our results show that there is serious potential for privacy problems. 93.8% of participants revealed some information that they did not want disclosed. Given our sample, it is virtually certain that most other Facebook users have similar problems. On the other hand, we also note that 84.6% of participants are hiding information that they wish to share. In other words, the user interface design is working against the very purpose of online social networking.”[8] The research tracked the Facebook use of 65 students between 18 and 25 years through a survey and an application just developed for their research project.

In case of this study the Columbian research is a good first basis to build up on for my own study. Although my research project doesn’t necessarily focus on specific sharing intentions the result that the technical level of the privacy configuration allows to reveal information and users in the focus group either reveal something they didn’t plan to or hide something they didn’t plan to is helpful. The Columbian researcher concluded that the user interface design is working against the very purpose of online social networking as it doesn’t match the sharing intentions. Unfortunately there is no reference that this mismatch is caused by a possible lack of competence on user side.

At this point there is another study that needs to be mentioned and that focuses more on user behavior. It was published in 2009 under the title Facebook and Online Privacy: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Unintended Consequences [9]. The researcher examined Facebook users’ awareness of privacy issues and perceived benefit and risks of using this social platform specifying on how users understand the potential threat to their privacy. The authors assumed that users have a lax attitude towards privacy setting and are not changing them until their privacy actually got violated. However, risks of experiencing privacy violation were ascribed more to others than to the self. As a method they used an online survey with 119 college undergraduates followed by open-ended in depth face-to-face interview with eight of survey participants.

They also refer to two interesting sample studies both made in 2005. Govani and Pashley “found that more than 80 percent of participants knew about the privacy settings, yet only 40 percent actually made use of them. More than 60 percent of the users’ profiles contained specific personal information such as date of birth, hometown, interests, relationship status, and a picture. The study by Jones and Soltren (2005) showed that 74 percent of the users were aware of the privacy options in Facebook, yet only 62 percent actually used them. At the same time, users willingly post large amounts of personal information […] and demonstrate disregard for both the privacy settings and Facebook’s privacy policy and terms of service. Eighty-nine percent admitted that they had never read the privacy policy and 91 percent were not familiar with the terms of service.”[10]

In another research study from 2008 among a survey of 704 students Tufekci pointed out that „general privacy concerns were not of much relevance to students’ decisions regarding disclosure”[11]. Students may try ‘‘to restrict the visibility of their profile to desired audiences”[12]. The most obvious and readily available mechanism of restriction is a profile limitation for only friends to be able to see it. Also, the category ‘‘friend’’ is very broad and ambiguous in the online world in general. This category on Facebook basically includes one’s whole number of Facebook friends which is balanced - regarding official statistics since 2007 - around an average of 300 people.

Theoretical Approach

The term media competence was brought up several times in this report already. As it is a key phrase it must necessarily be defined. For that reason I’d like to refer to a common psychological definition the Zurich University of Applied Sciences gave in a brochure with the title Frequently asked questions about opportunities and risks with media .[13] They say media competence means to deal with media in a consciously but primarily responsible way. This includes the knowledge about how to satisfy own needs throughout the media but also the critical analysis of own media behavior.

This refers to a complex concept of media competence that has been originally defined by the German educationalist Dieter Baake who in turn combined the Habermas’ concept of communicative competence and Chomsky’s one of linguistic competence. “According to Baake media competence is the basic competence of human kind. It consists of the capacity of using different types of media as communication tools and activity of understanding the world.”[14] Furthermore he identifies four aspects of media competence: critics of media, knowledge of the media, the use of media and the organization of media.

At that point it is important to go into detail with the definition because media competence is one of the main variables that needs to be measured somehow.


[1] Creswell, 141

[2] Creswell/Tashakkori, 207

[3] Cp. Creswell, 141

[4] Creswell, 141


[6] Madejski et al., 1

[7] Madejski et al., 1

[8] Madejski et al., 11

[9] Debatin et al. 83-108

[10] Debatin et al.,86

[11] Tufekci, 31

[12] Tufekci, 33


[14] Parola/Ranieri, 29

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Media Competence regarding Facebook Privacy Settings
Are users just too incompetent to protect their private data?
University of Copenhagen  (Deptartment of Media, Cognition and Communication)
Audience and User Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
725 KB
media, media competence, media literacy, facebook, privacy, privacy settings, uses and gratification approach, creswell, research, research design, methodology, research question
Quote paper
Stefanie Groß (Author), 2012, Media Competence regarding Facebook Privacy Settings, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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