Firm News

Should you #DeleteFacebook?

April 5, 2018

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, combined with growing fears of digital tracking, has Facebook in the hot seat.

1 personality test. 1 political consulting firm. 87 million user profiles. By now, most of us have heard of Facebook’s biggest public relations scandal to date: Cambridge Analytica. Words like metadata, data mining and “psychographic profiling” abound in articles covering how a small firm was able to use data to persuade millions. Is this situation really as terrifying as a Black Mirror episode, or has collective paranoia surrounding privacy on social media made a mountain out of a molehill? The answer lies somewhere in between. We break down what happened, what options you have to protect your data, and what’s in store for the future of Facebook and digital marketing.

Cambridge Analytica: What Happened

Talk to a digital marketer or data researcher about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and you’re likely to hear the same response: this is old news. In 2014, a Cambridge University professor created a personality quiz-like Facebook app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” which accumulated approximately 270,000 users. These users, whether they were aware of it or not, had essentially agreed to have their profiles scraped for information – and those of their friends (a feature that was available on Facebook’s platform at the time) – in the name of academic research. Since the average Facebook user a few hundred “Friends” – the number of total profiles scraped ballooned to 87 million. In comes Cambridge Analytica, who offered to buy this data set from the creator of the app in order to sway political opinion in favor of Donald Trump.

Just how useful the information gathered from this app was is still unclear, with many experts concluding that Cambridge Analytica greatly exaggerated the impact their data set had on the 2016 election. Some chalked up CA’s claims to marketing bravado, a sales technique to get more clients who are likely unfamiliar with data-based targeting. But the final nail in the coffin for Facebook boiled down to this: while Cambridge Analytica’s use of data obtained for academic research was against Facebook’s terms of service, ultimately this was not a data breach but a platform feature that has since been eliminated.

Is Facebook spying on me?

While the feature that enabled Cambridge Analytica to harvest data on 50 million profiles has since been turned off by Facebook, existing marketing features of the platform have stirred controversy over Facebook’s ubiquity and tracking ability in digital realm. In fact, the platform’s targeting algorithms are so scarily accurate, conspiracy theorists have started wondering if the company is listening in on user’s offline conversations through their device’s microphone. While it is true that Facebook has admitted to collecting calls and SMS data from Android users (for which users had to opt-in), the company doesn’t need to listen in on your conversations – metadata, the small bits of information about your social connections, browsing and messaging habits, is more than enough to build an advertising profile. Facebook does this using their mobile app and “Pixel” marketing program, which embeds code in a website to track your activities even while you’re off the platform. It is important to note that advertisers and marketers do not receive personal, identifying information. All data is anonymized and categorized by interest, unlike the academic data collected in the CA scandal. Facebook is currently in the process of restricting access to user data even further.

Should you #DeleteFacebook?

For some, Cambridge Analytica was the straw that broke the camel’s back – calling for users to abandon the platform with the hashtag #DeleteFacebook. Mozilla, Space X, Tesla and several other (mostly tech) companies responded by removing their brand pages from the site. Interestingly, few of these companies deleted their Instagram accounts, even though the photo-sharing app is also owned by Facebook.

All of this sounds scary: a monolithic technological Big Brother watching your every move. But users have more control than they might think. In fact, it’s relatively easy to see the kinds of topics and interests Facebook uses to target ads to you. Simply navigate over to your Facebook Advertising profile and you’ll see the bits of information inferred about your account based on your likes, status updates and other metadata. You can even edit your preferences to manage what data is available to advertisers.

So, should you #DeleteFacebook? It really depends on how much you rely on the platform. For many, there’s no real alternative for Facebook when it comes to keeping in touch with friends and family – especially if you live far away. However, users can take control of the information they allow the platform to use by tightening their privacy settings, editing their advertising profile, and most importantly: deleting third-party apps that collect data.

In the end, Facebook is a useful tool for communication, keeping in touch and sharing information. It can also be a powerful platform for advertisers to reach their target audiences. While it is up to Facebook to protect user data, the CA scandal has shone a light on how users can take back control of their data by limiting third-party access to it. For marketers, this means embracing a more user-empowered approach, one that encourages active participation in the platform for a better online experience for all.

Allison Staub is a Digital Media Manager at Bond Moroch.