Study reveals what your social media use says about you

What they know about you
The more you use the internet, the more it learns about you
The study
The data
Netflix, Spotify and news websites
Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat
Some apps are more common in certain socio-economic groups
Not all apps reveal that much
Education is a key factor
Wealth, education and inequality
Correlation does not imply causation
Fighting inequality
The gap
Knowing too much
Data scandal
Swing the vote
Manufacturing consent
Improvement, not divisions
What they know about you

When you use popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, every interaction leaves a small trace of information. Have you ever wondered what do they know about you?

The more you use the internet, the more it learns about you

We use the internet to seek information about all sorts of things, but what you may not know is that the more you use the internet, the more data can be collected and the more algorithms learn about you.

The study

A 2021 study published by The Journal of the Royal Society of Interface, a monthly peer-reviewed scientific publication by The Royal Society, shows that your internet consumption can even reveal your socioeconomic status more than you ever suspected.

The data

The researchers used the data of 3.7 billion mobile traffic records collected in France by the telecom company Orange. The study gathered data between May and June 2017 and contrasted it with socioeconomic census data gathered in 2014-2015.

Netflix, Spotify and news websites

The study reveals that reading the news, using streaming services such as Netflix or Spotify, responding to e-mails, or chatting over WhatsApp is something more common among people who live in wealthier neighborhoods.

Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat

In contrast, using social media platforms such as Facebook or Snapchat, watching YouTube, or looking for adult images or videos online is done far more by people with less financial means.

Some apps are more common in certain socio-economic groups

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t rich people watching YouTube or that poor people don’t use WhatsApp. It’s only that some apps are far more prevalent in certain groups than in others.

Not all apps reveal that much

However, not all apps reveal that much about their users. The study shows that Instagram and Twitter, for instance, have a very broad appeal that attracts more or less equal numbers of people of all backgrounds. It seems like everyone likes to share their thoughts and their selfies.

Education is a key factor

Education is a key factor determining which activities people from different economic groups do most often online. People who have a higher level of education tend to read more news, and people with less education tend to use social media more often.

Wealth, education and inequality

“The digital usage gap is so profound between low- and high-income or low- or high-education areas that it can be used to clearly distinguish between them or even identify the relative composition of these groups in a given area”, the study states.

Correlation does not imply causation

However, correlation doesn’t imply causation and another question arises: Do people become wealthy thanks to education or become educated because they can afford it?

Fighting inequality

The researchers wanted to prove that there was a gap between wealth, education, and internet usage. They feel that they have succeeded. Now they hope these results help to fight inequality.

The gap

“We have found a huge gap,” study coauthor and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Esteban Moro commented to El País. “Our study makes way for the creation of indicators that allow us to study this gap and its evolution.”

Knowing too much

Although the team behind the study published by The Royal Society may have noble intentions, sometimes this information is useful for less altruistic goals.

Data scandal

This is what happened with Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm that was using Facebook user data to create political advertisement for their clients.

Swing the vote

Harvesting information from up to 87 million Facebook profiles, Cambridge Analytica managed to swing the vote in favor of Brexit and and also influenced the Donald Trump presidential campaign.

Manufacturing consent

The only thing they did? Create tailor-made advertisements aimed at less-educated and less politically-motivated people on social media. Feeling ignored by mainstream society, this target audience was eager to vote for what they felt spoke to them.

Improvement, not divisions

Let's hope data studies like the one published by The Royal Society can help society to improve, instead of dividing it even more.

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