Your Social Media Data May Be Around for Much Longer Than You Think

Experts weigh in on deleting your online footprint

In some cases, the best way to erase your footprint is not through deleting data at all, but through diversion.
Animation: Yuliya Kim

It’s no secret that people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with Facebook. It’s clunky and obsolete. The advertising is creepily targeted. The news it promotes is of questionable legitimacy. It keeps trying to reconnect you with people you’d rather forget exist. The Cambridge Analytica crisis converted many holdouts, triggering a mass exodus from the platform.

But, Facebook has sunk its claws in deep and has no intention of letting its users go without a fight. Disillusioned users who decide they want to jump ship may be disturbed to find it’s not as easy as they’d like. For instance, you can technically “delete” your Facebook account—by requesting to have it deleted—but if you happen to log back in with your previous credentials, your full account will be automatically reactivated for up to 14 days before the data is deleted from the servers for good.

This is because there are “backup versions and backups of backups for all social media sites,” according to Jeff Weisbein, CEO and founder, BestTechie.

“The way these systems are engineered, it’s about redundancy—if one server fails another one picks up where it left off,” Weisbein explained. “They might have systems in place that go through and delete data, but it might take a long time.”

This is what allows for data to be restored even if you’ve “deleted” your account. For a more specific breakdown by platform regarding how long it hangs onto data, Weisbein recommends checking its unique Terms of Service fine print.

Last year, an Instagram influencer I follow, who has nearly 21,000 followers, lost all her posts in one fell swoop due to a glitch on the platform. Days later, her entire history was recovered. While an influencer’s career lives and dies by their carefully curated content, what does that sort of retrievability portend for the rest of us?

A spokeswoman for Facebook believes concerns around user data hanging around are overblown. “We make it easy to delete your data–you can delete what you’ve posted, and we’ll remove it from your timeline and from our servers,” she said. “You can also delete your account at any time.”

Of course Facebook is not the only social media platform out there from which people may want to disappear, partially or in full, and they all have varying degrees of ease.

In some cases, the best way to erase your footprint is not through deleting data at all, but through diversion—like changing your name on your accounts to something partly or completely fake. Companies will now hire groups to go and bury data rather than try to get rid of it, Weisbein said. But that, similar to taking legal action, can be pricey and you need to weigh whether it warrants the cost, according to Jennifer Shapka, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who studies the impact of the internet on social and cognitive development.

All the experts agreed the largest threat for social media users who want to get rid of something is, unsurprisingly, what’s already gotten into the hands of someone else. Weisbein pointed out that screenshots are the No. 1 enemy of privacy. If you delete a tweet or update, but someone took a screenshot first, “they now control the destiny of that update or tweet,” he said. You can easily delete a Facebook message, the spokeswoman explained, but, much like email, you can’t control what happens to the message when it’s been sent to someone else. 

There are secure, encrypted messaging apps like Signal, but tech experts have trouble imagining an actual social media platform that is “less permanent.” “[Permanence] is baked into the technological structure,” Shapka said. “Technology is designed to share everything and have that footprint exist permanently.”

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