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‘Subtle cues’ make people SHARE more online, study says – what does this mean for a post-Covid-19 world?

‘Subtle cues’ make people SHARE more online, study says – what does this mean for a post-Covid-19 world?
A new study suggests people may have privacy concerns when it comes to technology, but there are psychological temptations for them to divulge too much, a fact that could have repercussions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a report titled ‘Online Privacy Heuristics that Predict Information Disclosure’ published in the latest issue of Proceedings of Computer-Human Interaction (CHI 2020), Penn State researchers theorize there are 12 subtle but powerful reasons people may give up on their privacy concerns “in the heat of the moment” when online.

“These appeals are based on rules of thumb that we all hold in our head, called heuristics,” said S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory.

“Bandwagon heuristics” is a major reason people give out key personal information based on cues hidden in websites or mobile apps, which the study identifies as thinking “if most others reveal their information, then it is safe for me to disclose as well.” One example of this can be found on a website like LinkedIn.

“When you go on LinkedIn and you see a statement that says your profile is incomplete and that 70 percent of your connections have completed their profiles, that's a cue that triggers your need to follow others – which is what we call a bandwagon effect,” Sundar said. 

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Certain images can also make people feel safer about entering private information.

“The presence of a logo of a trusted agency such as FDIC or even a simple icon showing a lock can make users of online banking feel safe and secure, and it makes them feel that somewhere somebody is looking after their security,” the study reveals.  

Other cues that make people feel safe to share their information include a company appearing to be transparent about their privacy policies, the desire to build a full online persona, feeling part of a small online community, and trading information with someone openly sharing theirs.

Online services providing “instant gratification” and “immediate service” are also more likely to get personal shared information than websites that “take time to satisfy” a users’ needs. 

The researchers interviewed 786 people, each of whom was asked to review 12 different scenarios they may encounter online and then decide how willing they were to hand over personal information.

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Privacy concerns with technology have long been a hotly debated topic, but have especially come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apple and Google have developed an app to help with contact tracing when it comes to the coronavirus, one they say will be an ‘opt-in’ service that has features built in to protect privacy, but critics have been skeptical. 

US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have talked up a ‘Covid-19 Screening Tool’ app, which would take guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine steps users should take based on their past contacts, including whether they should get tested for the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who sits on the White House coronavirus task force, has also floated the idea of “immunity certificates” to identify who is susceptible to the virus and who is not, information that would likely be gathered through the previously mentioned app. Other countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom are mulling the idea, and Germany has already put its support behind it.

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And with much of the world still under lockdown orders, and working and schooling from home, apps like Zoom have become a central part of the daily lives of millions. But the increased number of users on the service has revealed serious concerns about where information is being routed through and how much protection there is from trolls and hackers who have exposed thousands of private meetings and calls online.

While the Penn State study suggests most people would likely go along with any Covid-19 app-based service and let privacy concerns fall by the wayside – as they largely do now, especially with apps like Zoom – the researchers suggest that knowing some of the psychological cues that tempt people can increase their “media literacy.”

They also suggest that perhaps alerts are needed to help people identify cues that may be having a subtle effect on users.

“Just as users are about to reveal information, an alert could pop up on the site and ask them if they are sure they want to do that. That might give them a bit of a pause to think about that transaction.”

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