HKBU School of Business research examines how the pandemic reshaped users’ social media self-disclosure

Behavioural changes caused by world events like the pandemic can cause major shocks and fluctuations  in social media which presents future challenges for policy makers and business managers.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe in the spring of 2020,  governments around the world swung into action to implement sweeping social distancing measures.  People were forced to suddenly adapt their daily lives to comply with the new strict norms. Now as the  world has reopened, most things are back to normal but some changes in people’s behaviours are here  to stay. 

Research conducted by Professor Christy Cheung of Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business, in  collaboration with researchers Teagen Nabity-Grover of Boise State University and Jason Bennett  Thatcher of the Temple University, explored how users’ behaviour on social media altered due to the  pandemic. 

“During the pandemic, extensive lockdowns and rigid social distancing measures forced people to change  not only their offline but online behaviour as well,” says Professor Christy Cheung. “There was a drastic increase in the amount of time users spent on social media and also a shift in what they shared online – their online self-disclosure. Our study aimed to understand these changes better and provide  recommendations on how policy makers and businesses can leverage these findings to find more effective  ways to engage with online audiences.”

Main Findings

    1. Social factors outweigh privacy to become the primary drivers of online disclosure behaviour
      Through the quasi experimental study, it was observed that during the pandemic-afflicted holidays, the privacy calculus – which includes factors like self-presentation, self-enhancement, platform trust, community trust and privacy concern – was no longer a significant calculus for driving online disclosure behaviour. Social factors such as utilitarian value, fear and social capital more significantly influenced the type of information users shared.
    2. Topics that were considered too private to share online during pre-pandemic times, became publicly acceptable
      The pandemic may have made individuals more aware of what they disclose on social media, in particular, information pertaining to their personal health, how their behaviour impacts others and how their view about health and protective behaviours are perceived by others. Therefore, topics that were deemed desirable to be shared on social media before the pandemic gradually became frowned upon, while some information that people previously did not disclose online became socially acceptable to be shared. The finding has introduced two principles in explaining these changes, namely “Outside-In” and “Inside-Out” disclosures:
      • Outside-In: It describes topics people used to regularly disclose that are now frowned upon. This level of self-disclosure decisions during the pandemic go beyond the anticipated personal benefits and personal costs. Social media users are likely to take the other-focus perspective to evaluate whether their shared content will result in negative reactions from others.
      • Inside-Out: It describes topics people did not prefer to disclose previously but are now socially encouraged. This occurred because users today either fear being perceived as putting others at the risk of infection or seek to protect others from the pandemic. Health information once considered private and sensitive is now shared more readily in the name of public welfare.

Policy and Business Implications:

    1. Social media apps tracking location data need to evaluate what information they readily share with authorities as users today are more conscious of data privacy and protection rights
      During the pandemic, specifically with the introduction of contract tracing, people became more sceptical about what and how much they shared online. To keep the trust of users and to continue to attract more user-generated content,social media apps need to prioritise user privacy protection and should be encouraged to openly disclose what information they share with authorities.
    2. Businesses need to evaluate the reliability of social media data as it is susceptible to shocks and fluctuations due to changes in user behaviour
      In the post-pandemic era, the study suggests that business managers and marketers need to observe whether users have resumed ‘normal’ posting behaviour. These observations are important to consider when revaluating and formulating new marketing strategies based on social media data analysis. In the same vein, another long-term consideration suggested by the research is to assess and account for these data fluctuations when training algorithms and automating processes.


The research team conducted a longitudinal, quasi-experimental study that collected 497 complete  responses from Instagram and Facebook users in the United States. Two surveys were conducted at  different instances during the 2020 winter holiday season, as that period of time provides a prime  opportunity to evaluate patterns because people are expected to have turned to social media to  reconnect with their friends and family.