Public confidence in global social media operators Facebook and Google retreated in Sweden in 2019 amid growing public distrust over personal data use and online privacy.
The “trust factor” contributed to a decline in Facebook’s popularity in Sweden in 2019, according to a survey conducted by Internetstiftelsen (Internet Foundation Sweden), the public service organisation tasked with ensuring the positive development of the internet in Sweden.
The Internetstiftelsen survey, Swedes and the internet 2019 (in Swedish, Svenskarna och internet 2019) revealed that public confidence in social media giants Facebook and Google declined by 17% in Sweden from 2015 to 2019. The annual survey is a useful tool to measure online behaviour in Sweden as well as societal changes in the face of increasing digitalisation.
Sweden is among the most digitalised of the Nordic countries. More than 98% of Sweden’s households are connected to the internet, while access to fibre increased to 57% of homes during the fourth quarter of 2019.
Just 25% of Swedes surveyed in Internetstiftelsen’s report considered the time they spend on social media platforms to be “meaningful”.
By contrast, 60% in the survey felt that time spent on various domestic and international news apps was a meaningful use of their time. The corresponding figure for time spent playing online and mobile games, by comparison, was just 12%.
In 2019, 91% of Swedes used their personal computers to access the internet, the Internetstiftelsen survey found. More than 90% of Swedes accessed the internet using Android and smartphone devices, while 61% used tablets.
According to the survey, more Swedes are now “taking a closer look” at how their personal data is being used, not just by technology giants such as Google and Facebook, but more generally by state organisations and public authorities in Sweden. The primary concern for consumers relates to possible intrusions into their personal privacy online.
“Almost half of all Swedes feel monitored on the internet. There is a trend whereby they are becoming more restrictive when it comes to sharing other people’s posts on social media. Overall, we are seeing that the use of social media seems to have begun to level off,” the Internetstiftelsen survey-based report states.
Significantly, the Internetstiftelsen survey reveals that while around 50% of Swedes are worried that leading social media actors such as Google and Facebook may be infringing on their privacy and failing to adequately protect their personal data, less than 26% have the same fears about government organisations and public authorities.
“What the survey reveals is that more Swedes are becoming increasingly worried that large companies like Facebook and Google are infringing on their personal privacy online,” said Måns Jonasson, director of digital strategy at Internetstiftelsen.
“I think the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the many notable hacking attacks that have taken place over recent years, has caused people to reflect about how they spend their time in the internet and social media space.”
The Internetstiftelsen survey reveals that Swedes are very much at home in being part of the evolving digital society.
Although the general trend is one of unease over how private and public organisations are invading privacy and using personal data, a majority of Swedes embrace change and the development of digital e-services within defined public service areas such as healthcare, transport and mobile banking.
The decline in Facebook’s popularity in Sweden is unlikely to have a consequential impact on public trust and confidence in e-commerce, said Per Ljungberg, the CEO of Svensk Handel, the central organisation for the country’s trade and business sectors.
“Consumers’ loyalties change. If consumers don’t like a certain platform, they will move to another. For e-commerce, there are always multiple channels to use. Should consumers lose confidence in Facebook or Google, they will simply go elsewhere. However, I don’t see this happening right away, and there are no indications that this will happen in the near future,” he said.
Svensk Handel’s own research, coupled with feedback from the business and industry employers organisations that it represents, reinforces the view that the “digital power momentum” has shifted to consumers, said Ljungberg.
“The power has definitely shifted to the consumer in digitalisation. Most visibly, this has changed the security aspect of e-commerce. Today’s e-retailers must be able to respond to how the individual’s data is used, what data legislation requires of them in terms of taking responsibility for complying with GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] rules,” he said.
The growing skepticism being experienced by Swedes with the leading media platforms is compounded by the “targeted ads fatigue factor”, said Jonasson. Consumers are becoming less tolerant of targeted advertising online. This has become a major source of annoyance that builds hostility and suspicion towards media platform operators, he added.
“A consumer running a simple Google search in the morning can result in recurring advertising for a specific product for the rest of the day on Facebook. Consumers are growing tired of targeted advertising online.
“The strength of Google and Facebook is being able to deliver that personalised touch. Consumers don’t always appreciate how this is done. The working models of social media platforms will likely become more data-driven, not less, in the future,” Jonasson said.
Although the Internetstiftelsen survey observes a decline in Facebook’s popularity in Sweden, Jonasson believes that the development could be an adjustment rather than signalling an irreversible trend.
“While there is a decline in Facebook’s popularity in Sweden, it is a marginal slide in interest, and it’s a trend that is happening for the first time. Interest in Facebook may have peaked in Sweden, yet no alternatives really exist to replace it right now.
“It is possible that smaller social media networks will appear that are more niche, or maybe the Web might return to how it was in the 1990s. To this extent, only time will tell what the future holds,” said Jonasson.
The Internetstiftelsen survey also provides credence to the widely held perception that the introduction of data protection legislation, including the GDPR, hasn’t made consumers any more cautious about providing personal data to social media platforms and their services’ offerings.
Consumers 55 years and above are also likely to be more attached to older forms of communication such as email, Skype and Facebook Messenger, while younger users gravitate more freely towards WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram and video-calls.