Why Brits are turning to ‘darker’ corners of the internet

Author: Dr Michael Turner (Director – Freshwater Strategy)

In my experience, as someone who analyses data on such things; social media campaigns rarely change minds.

The best digital campaigners have known this for some time. They understand that the role of social media platforms is quite different to the rest of the tools in their arsenal. Not principally to ‘win people over’ with arguments and messages, but instead to capture people’s attention and tap into their sense of political tribalism.

Obviously, this has its consequences.

The digital town square, which includes platforms like Facebook and Twitter, is a ‘reach and preach’ game, with little scope for genuine debate, or the art of persuasion. More akin to an evangelist giving a sermon on the high street. Those who stop to listen are almost certainly already believers. Those who aren’t might smile and nod, as they take a slightly wider berth around any gathering of the fervent faithful.

In 2019, the co-founder of Kickstarter and author, Yancey Strickler, introduced an idea which he called the ‘dark forest of the internet’.

These ‘darker’ parts of our digital world are where people increasingly turn for more ‘sheltered’ and private conversations, to have meaningful and engaging interactions with others.

Strickler writes, “imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The forest is full of life. It’s quiet at night because this is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay quiet”.

This analogy fits well with my own observations on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Digital public spaces are felt to be increasingly difficult for users to navigate due to trolling, ad-tracking, and a host of predatory behaviours from users that impact on people’s reputation.

The poisonous nature of these platforms is shifting users to different parts of the internet. Spaces considered ‘safer’ and more closed off from reputational ‘threats’.

Platforms such as private messaging apps, subscription newsletters, specialised podcasts, and YouTube channels are where people can be themselves, be genuinely engaged, and their true preferences understood.

These ‘dark’ channels are where ‘depressurised’ and ‘authentic’ conversations can take place because the environments are more likely to mimic how people engage one another in the real world.

They’re more private, less trackable, often with greater depth, and more personal in nature.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that underground platforms, like WhatsApp, Substack, YouTube, and podcasts, are being used so much more among Brits today.

New polling from Freshwater Strategy puts some hard numbers behind the idea.


  1. WhatsApp is the communications platform of choice for Brits, with three-quarters (75%) saying they use it regularly, significantly more than the 67% who uses SMS, 60% who use Meta/Facebook, and 29% who regularly use Twitter
  2. Brits say they are less likely to reveal their ‘true’ or authentic selves on social media platforms than they do on messenger apps like WhatsApp and SMS
  3. The shift may be driven, in part, because of a fear of the consequence of revealing their true thoughts in a public space (44%) or that influential users might ruin their reputation (28%)
  4. A clear majority of Brits (60%) say that they take great care to protect their reputation on social media, and are much more likely to share content they like on private platforms such as WhatsApp and SMS (57%) than they are on platforms like Meta/Facebook
  5. The overwhelming majority of Brits who use Meta/Facebook (81%) say that they game the platform, by skipping and ignoring adverts that are specifically designed to engage them

WhatsApp is the communications platform of choice for Brits, with around three-quarters (75%) saying that they use the communication tool regularly (see figure 1, below). Higher than SMS (67%), and Meta/Facebook (60%). Because so many Brits use these platforms, their users tend to be similar in profile to the profile of the nation.

Instagram is used regularly by 46% of Brits. Its users are more likely to be young, female, non-voters, and renters with children. Twitter is used regularly by just under one third of Brits (29%). Its users are more likely to be young, Labour Party supporters, and living in London. LinkedIn is used regularly by just one in eight Brits (12%). Its users are more likely to be middle-aged, Remain supporters, Lib Dem supporters, to live in London, and work in higher paying professional occupations.

We asked users whether they tend to reveal their true self on the platforms they use, or whether they tend to show something that is not really their true or authentic self while using the platform?

We found that users of private messenger apps such as SMS (84%) and WhatsApp (83%) were significantly more likely to say that they tended to portray their true / authentic selves while using these platforms (see figure 2, below), possibly because of their more private nature.

Just two thirds of Meta/Facebook users (66%) and two thirds of Twitter users (65%) say that they tend to reflect their true selves while using these platforms, as do around half of TikTok users (53%).

A clear majority of Brits (60%) say that they take great care to manage their personal reputation online and on social media, just one in eight (12%) disagree (see figure 3, below), suggesting that many users of social media platforms carefully consider the reputational impact of what they post.

Many believe that there is a great deal of consequence to being your authentic self in the new ‘digital town square’.

Just one quarter of Brits (25%) agree that they believe they can reveal their true thoughts on social media without consequence, compared with 44% who disagree.

A significant minority (28%) agree that they worry that influential users may ruin their reputation if they say something that is disagreed with.

Among this group, who fear the spite of influential users, almost nine in ten (88%) say that they are very careful about what they post online, four in five (81%) say that they take great care to manage their personal reputation on social media, and two thirds (69%) agree that they are more likely to share content they like on private messenger apps than on social media.

A clear majority of Brits (57%) also suggest they are more likely to share content that they like on private messenger platforms, than they are on social media (see figure 4, above). This suggests that WhatsApp and SMS may be contain more accurate information about what Brits truly find engaging, and value, than more traditional social media platforms like Meta/Facebook and Twitter etc.

Polling results also suggest that the vast majority of Meta/Facebook users (81%) tend to skip and ignore advertisements that are specifically designed to engage them (see figure 4, below).

Freshwater Strategy interviewed a representative sample of 1,001 adults living in Great Britain, online between 23rd and 25th September. Data are weighted.

For comment, additional analysis, or a more detailed breakdown of results from this poll, please get in touch.

Email: polling@freshwaterstrategy.com

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