If Facebook still exists in fifty years, dead users on the platform will likely outnumber the living ones. Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute found that, based on global 2018 estimates, the number of deceased people on the world’s largest social site could reach 4.9 billion by the end of the century. Considering this reality, the study’s authors added, sociologists, and anthropologists are increasingly interested in examining the “para-social relationships” we form with the “online dead.” More than that, they’re asking some tough questions, namely: What do we lose, in terms of both privacy and connection, when we give mega corporations control over our digital remains? With that in mind, we turn to the death policies of five of today’s popular social-media platforms.
If a Facebook user dies, the platform will memorialize an account if “a family member or close friend lets [Facebook] know.” In such a case, Facebook will not provide log-in information, but it will add a “remembering” badge on the profile. Content stays visible, but the profile won’t appear in public places or pop up as a suggested “person you may know.”
Nobody can log into a memorialized account, but if a person has chosen a “legacy contact” before their death, the account can be changed. A legacy contact can, for example, accept friend requests, pin a tribute post, and change a profile picture.
Before they die, Facebook users can also choose to have their account deleted upon death rather than memorialized. Other users can also request that a deceased person’s account be deleted, providing they have a birth certificate, death certificate, or proof that the person making the request is the deceased person’s lawful representative.
Like its parent company, Facebook, Instagram offers a memorialization option. Anybody can request that an Instagram account be memorialized. The platform does require proof of death, but in this case it can be a simple link to an obituary or news article. It doesn’t specify how it ensures the obituary or article is accurate or from a verified publication.
If a person’s account is memorialized, it won’t appear different from an account of a living user, and no comments or posts will be deleted. Privacy settings also cannot be changed. Essentially, it becomes frozen in time. Instagram does assure users that the profile won’t appear in public spaces, however, and that it tries to “prevent references to memorialized accounts from appearing on Instagram in ways that may be upsetting to the person’s friends and family.”
Another option is to delete the account entirely. In such cases, Instagram requires more official documentation, not all of it easy to access: the deceased’s birth or death certificate or proof that the person making the request is the deceased’s lawful representative.
The popular, ephemeral social-media platform does not offer an extensive death policy. In a multioption “contact us” menu, Snapchat offers this: “We are so sorry for your loss. We would like to assist you in any way possible.” The site offers only one option, however, in the case of a user’s death and that is to delete the account. To do so, Snapchat needs a death certificate. If you want someone to access your account after you die, you will need to provide a designated person with your log-in information.
As with other social-media platforms, Twitter will deactivate an account upon request if a user dies. An immediate family member or someone authorized to act on behalf of the deceased must send in their own ID and information about the deceased, including a copy of the death certificate, if they wish to close the account. Twitter also has to contend with images or tweets published before or after a person’s death. In some cases, Twitter will remove an image that shows a critical injury, for example. In other cases, it will refuse. “When reviewing such media removal requests,” the company warns, “Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content and may not be able to honor every request.”
Most YouTube accounts need to be associated with an account on Google, the platform’s parent company. Before their death, any Google user can use the “inactive account manager” tool to determine what should happen to their accounts after a specified period of inactivity. Options include sending certain data to predetermined contacts or simply shutting down the accounts. If nothing is designated ahead of time, immediate family members or an authorized representative can send a request to deactivate an account or to obtain data from it. To do this, they have to verify their identity and provide a scan of the user’s death certificate.