Future Tense

People Are Losing Trust in Facebook. Here’s Why They’re Staying On It Anyway.

A man holds a smart phone with the icons for the social networking apps Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
A new poll finds Americans trust Facebook far less than Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/Getty Images

After the Cambridge Analytica revelations, a new poll finds that Americans trust Facebook less than ever. But the same poll shows that online privacy isn’t a top priority for most people—adding to the evidence that the #deletefacebook campaign is unlikely to dent the social network’s dominance.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted March 21-23, found that just 41 percent of U.S. adults trust Facebook to “obey laws that protect your personal information.” That’s significantly lower than the percentage who trust Amazon (66 percent), Google (62 percent), Microsoft (60 percent), Apple (53 percent), or even Yahoo (48 percent).

It won’t shock anyone that Facebook is broadly mistrusted. Still, 41 percent is pretty bad considering the low bar proposed by the question: not whether people trust Facebook to keep all their data safe, but whether they trust it simply to obey the law. Whether Facebook broke any laws in the Cambridge Analytica affair is not yet clear, but the company faces multiple lawsuits, and the Federal Trade Commission confirmed Monday that it’s investigating Facebook’s data practices.

The poll strongly suggests that Facebook has suffered some reputational damage from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, although it’s hard to say exactly how much, since it’s the first time this particular question has been asked. It’s also worth noting that while the poll was conducted after the data leak had been in the headlines for a few days, it was before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg embarked on a media blitz aimed at mending the company’s reputation.

The company’s stock has dipped more than 13 percent since the story broke, though there are signs that the selloff has subsided. Meanwhile, a #deletefacebook social media campaign appears to have peaked last week without approaching the intensity of last year’s #deleteuber campaign.

What’s really interesting about the Reuters/Ipsos poll, however, are the secondary questions about how seriously Americans take their online privacy. The results offer some clues as to why Facebook seems to be weathering the storm.

More than half of all respondents—51 percent—check Facebook “continuously throughout the day,” the survey found, while 78 percent check it at least once a week. Just 14 percent said they don’t use Facebook at all. That dwarfs the engagement of any rival platform, including Facebook’s own Instagram. (Oddly, the survey asked people about Google+ but not YouTube.) Among the 14 percent who don’t use Facebook, the greatest share (40 percent) said they “don’t find it that interesting or useful.” Just 28 percent of those abstainers cited privacy concerns as the main reason they stay off the platform. Another question asked people who do use Facebook why they don’t use it more often. Again, the top answer was usefulness (30 percent), followed by lack of time (19 percent). Just 16 percent cited privacy.

In other words, while privacy is a factor in people’s decisions about using Facebook, it’s a relatively small one. That makes sense: It’s not like the social network had a sterling reputation for protecting users’ privacy at any point in its history. The majority of Americans clearly made peace with that long ago. Ditto for targeted advertisements, which the poll found that 41 percent of Americans find “worse” than regular advertisements. Asked whether they’d like to see more or less targeted advertising in the future, 63 percent said less; 21 percent said more. And yet there they still are, checking Facebook throughout the day.

Finally, the poll asked people what actions they’ve taken to protect their online privacy, such as switching internet browsers, putting tape over their device’s camera, or started using an encrypted communication service such as Signal, Whatsapp, or Wickr. In each case, the percentage who had taken such steps was under 20 percent.

The big takeaway seems to be: People don’t trust Facebook with their private information, but they don’t care enough to change their behavior. That may be partly because there’s no clear alternative: One reason #deleteuber caught on was because it’s so easy to switch to a rival such as Lyft. All the Cambridge Analytica headlines have surely altered some people’s value calculations when it comes to using Facebook, but there’s no evidence of a sea change in Americans’ attitudes.

That said, one finding from the survey will likely concern Facebook more than the rest. Asked how much the government should regulate how companies use your personal information, 46 percent said they’d like to see more regulation, while just 17 percent said they’d like to see less. That may not be the kind of groundswell needed to drive a substantive bill through this divided Congress, but it’s still a noteworthy finding given Americans’ general distaste for government regulations. In the long run, then, the scandal’s effect on Facebook’s business might have less to do with how users respond than how legislators and regulators respond.

Read more from Slate on Cambridge Analytica.