Here, I aim to clarify the issue and what it means to the industry as a whole.
What is it that Facebook are being accused of?
Back in 2014, Facebook invited users to find out their personality type via a quiz that was developed by a researcher from Cambridge University called Dr. Kogan. The quiz was called This Is Your Digital Life and about 270,000 participants were collected from it. However, the application developed for the quiz also collected some public data from participants’ friends.
Facebook has since altered the volume of data in which developers can gather, but a whistleblower, named Christopher Wylie, claims that about 50 million records were harvested for a company called Cambridge Analytica (no relation to Cambridge University) before the rules on user consent had been amended.
Mr Wylie’s accusation is that the data sold to Cambridge Analytica was then used to psychologically profile people and deliver pro-Donald Trump materials to them during the 2016 US election.
This claim is in part backed up by a secret recording taken by Channel 4, in which Cambridge Analytica’s Chief Executive says that the London based company ran President Trump’s digital campaign during the election.
The issue with this is two-fold:
1. A company using data sourced from potentially one of the biggest collectors of data on the planet to push a presidential candidate’s agenda is arguably morally bankrupt and gives a private company the power to influence the political landscape.
2. Facebook, as an organisation built on data collection, have supposedly compromised their user’s private information and allowed them to be psychoanalysed without their consent.
It is no secret that Facebook (or any social platform for that matter) hold information about you that is capable of building a psychological profile. We all know that Facebook ads are tailored to our profile, which could be argued is a welcome thing for both consumers and marketeers. After all, consumers don’t want to see ads that mean nothing to them and marketeers don’t want their ads seen by people who aren’t going to engage with them.
That in itself isn’t the issue though. As a marketeer myself, the algorithm built by companies such as Facebook and Google is the ideal platform in which to market on. My ads are sent to a relevant audience without me having direct access to their personal information. I simply fill out the criteria and the algorithm takes care of the rest.
It is however disturbing that this information potentially can be accessed and seen by a third party. The majority of the public would likely agree that they don’t have a problem with Facebook having access to their private information providing that it doesn’t leave Facebook. The beauty of an algorithm is that the control is two ways, marketeers can choose the audience they want to target and consumers can choose the ads they see. Remove that and you essentially have a load of men in suits rummaging through your bins.
Yesterday, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg apologised for the breach in user trust and is taking steps to assure this won’t happen again.
I won’t speculate any legal ramifications that Facebook may face, after all, I’m merely a humble Creative Nerd and my legal knowledge is minimal, to say the least. However, I do think it’s a good thing that this has been made public knowledge. While I don’t think for a second that Facebook will listen to the cries of #DeleteFacebook on Twitter and shut down, I do think this will make other digital companies take a good look at their data procedures and ethics going forward. I’d be surprised if Facebook were the only company to have done something like this with data.
One of the biggest issues we face with tech companies like Facebook is that they are self-regulated. Allowing a company to use your user’s data to push a political candidate without doing the same for any other candidate is essentially an endorsement from the company in which the data came from in the first place. If these platforms are supposed to be for everyone surely they should be impartial?
Facebook certainly won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. While it is important that Facebook continues to be a tool for advertising, it is essential that those using their platform are fully consenting to how their information is used. With GDPR rearing its head in May, they really can’t afford to mess up again.