Facebook's Data Problem

March 26, 2018 Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai


For the last week, this has been floating around every social platform and news channel as the story that political data firm Cambridge Analytica took 50 million Facebook users’ data continues to develop.

We’ll leave it to the experts to give you the full run-down, but we recommend The New York Times summary for the most succinct, but still detailed bullet points:

  1. News broke that Cambridge Analytica, who was hired by the Trump campaign, had access to data of 50 million Facebook users. 

  2. The data included details on “users’ identities, friend networks and likes. It was collected through a personality survey that was offered as an app through the social network in 2014. It was meant to map out personality traits that would allow for audiences to be targeted with more personally relevant digital ads.

  3. The problem is that this data firm is largely funded by Robert Mercer (a Republican donor) and Stephen K. Bannon – the former advisor to the president. Also, the data, which was supposed to have only been used for academic purposes, was supposed to have been destroyed.

  4. To complicate things, a British news report showed a video of Cambridge Analytica’s executives “offering to entrap politicians.”

  5. Facebook immediately banned Cambridge Analytica from using the platform. The social media giant is currently working with "regulators" to investigate how and why Cambridge Analytica kept the data that was certified destroyed. As further outlined in Mark Zuckerberg's FB post explaining the situation, the platform will be investigating apps that had access to data before the platform reduced data access in 2014, further reduce developers' access to such data and help walk users through how their data is currently being used.  

  6. Now the discussion is about just how much this influenced the election, if the content shown to audiences was “fake news” and how Facebook should better protect its users’ data (and perhaps take on regulations).

It’s a very complex issue, with lots of implications no matter what angle you look at it from. For now, we’re going to look at it from the stance of marketers and brands.

This is what captured our minutes. Here’s why:

Brands are now pulling out of Facebook

Yes, really.

Mozilla’s chief business and legal officer Denelle Dixon wrote that the company has “paused” its advertising on Facebook to take a deep dive into Facebook’s privacy settings.

Sonos announced that it will pull its advertising from Facebook and Instagram, along with Google and Twitter for the week while it makes a donation to Access Now’s digital rights conference, RightsCon.

Elon Musk ordered that both Tesla and SpaceX shut down their Facebook pages. They did. Musk even tweeted, “What’s Facebook?”

Lastly, though we haven’t read any recent reports that it has decided to go forward with any changes to its advertising, Unilever had said back in February that it will pull its advertising from Facebook and Google if they don’t become more transparent about how they work.

Obviously this is all a huge deal. We’ve seen the #Delete[InsertRelevantSocialMediaPlatformHere] movements before.

They aren’t a new phenomenon.

But this time, big brands with big advertising dollars are actually following through and changing the game. This move also raises the question of when it’s appropriate for a brand to do so. Not to downplay individual Facebook users’ concerns over data privacy, but when it’s big brands pulling the plug and changing their budgets to do so the scale of the issue widens that much more.

But, is that really necessary?

Good question. The basic answer is yes and no.

How vague and politically correct of us, we know. But seriously, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for all brands to do it.

Let’s use Sonos to explain. Being in the business of sharing art (read: music) with its audiences, it makes sense for Sonos to be interested in how data is shared and distributed. The brand has also historically supported digital rights and talked about issues like net neutrality.

This action aligns with their brand belief.

However, jumping on the cause bandwagon is never a good idea. So, actions like this should always be weighed in terms of what makes sense for the brand, its intentions and its customers.

All said, we do believe this is a good opportunity for all brands and marketers to understand how Facebook uses its data to create algorithms that run ad campaigns.

What happens to marketers and their social campaigns?

Facebook should have done its due diligence in terms of following up with Cambridge Analytica when it legally stipulated that the data firm delete the data it had.

Facebook now should also work hard to understand its power and influence, while working to better protect its users and offer more transparency on how the platform records information.

However, it’s still undeniably a great tool that can reach customers in smart and effective ways. Plus, people would probably better appreciate more relevant messaging instead of being inundated with anything and everything.

So, what does this mean for marketers? That they should do their homework. Marketers should strive to understand how the platform works with user data and algorithms, while also being responsible with how they target and engage with audiences.

We’ve written about it over and over again: consumers are smarter than we give them credit for. And there’s no reason that marketers can’t be upfront about how they do their work.

In fact, audiences will appreciate it more and be better able to develop a trusting relationship with the brand in question. This is the time for transparency. This is the time to do good work.

In all of the controversy, noise and clutter out there, why not prove that not all marketing or advertising is a case of trickery? This is the time to give people the content they want.

We’re sure that more developments will continue to turn up as time passes, both for Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Our final thought is this: where there’s great power, there should also be great responsibility.

A platform like Facebook might not be in the political arena, but it certainly has the power to join the ring. And it’s important to prepare for the ramifications of such, while also handling the relationship it has with its audiences with great care.

At the end of the day, people engage with content by lending their minutes. Content is successful when its battery is fully charged with attention.

What will win this week?

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