Facebook in scrutiny at home and abroad

By now you have probably noticed that Facebook is in the midst of its biggest scandal in the company’s history, facing global backlash from all directions. You may have seen the words “Cambridge Analytica” scattered around the internet in every publication, blog or forum that has anything to do with advertising, politics or tech. A lot of the information out there may be confusing, muddled between fact and opinion. We found a lot of reports telling us to panic, but very little giving us objective analysis and reasonable recommendation of what to do accordingly.

Social media marketing is a world of fine details and nuances. Disparity in people’s knowledge of the topic is often overlooked or underestimated. On the other hand, privacy is a very valuable right and a valid cause for concern to marketers and users alike. After an in-depth exploration into the issue and its many facets, we felt that a point of view free from sensationalism and bias was needed, so we wrote up something of our own. Here we will state the key facts, misconceptions and recommendations for what to do from here - whether you’re a personal or a business user of Facebook.

What happened?

  • In a report called “The Cambridge Analytica Files” based on a joint investigation by The Guardian and The Observer, with the help of two whistle-blowers, it was revealed that a large scale private user data breach has taken place on Facebook.
  • 270k Facebook users in the US participated in what looked like an academic study survey using an app they accessed through Facebook. Their data, as well as that of their friends and friends of friends, was harvested illegally by Cambridge Analytica. The total number of affected users amounted to over 87 million people.
  • The obtained data was then used in psychological profiling software to identify these people’s stance on social and political issues such as abortion, gay marriage, party affiliation, as well as voting preference.
  • This information was used in retargeting these users with content to influence their voting decision and alter their views against specific candidates.
  • Initially, the investigation tied the case to the Trump presidential campaign as Trump’s former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, was the CEO of Cambridge Analytica until 2014.
  • Other evidence has surfaced that ties Cambridge Analytica with questionable activities around the world - including collaborating with “Vote Leave” campaign for Brexit, once again using Facebook in the process.
  • Facebook has condemned the actions of Cambridge Analytica, cut ties with the organisation and publicly vowed to do all it can to prevent this from happening again.
  • The US Congress and the British Parliament have both summoned Mark Zuckerberg to testify in front of Congressmen and MPs respectively.
  • A #DeleteFacebook campaign has been adopted widely, with a number of brands deleting their Facebook presence such Playboy and Elon Musk’s Space X and Tesla. However, none of these brands are taking similar steps against Instagram, which is fully owned and operated by Facebook.
  • Facebook has lost almost $100b in value in recent weeks according to Vox.


Can Facebook data really be used to learn this much about people and influence their voting decision?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer, as put by Joel Winston of NBC News, is that “Data taken from Facebook profiles and friends by such apps can include the following information: name, email, gender, birthday, current city, profile picture, and content (e.g., Likes, status updates, events, and public photos). By analyzing only your Facebook “Likes,” your data can be manipulated to predict your fundamental qualities, including your intelligence, personality type, satisfaction with life, gender, age, sexual preference, interests, religion, political views, and relationship status.”

 How are Facebook users reacting?

Since the unfolding of this scandal we have seen an array of reactions - some of which seemed fair and reasonable, others rash and uninformed. Our recommendation is to try and get a deeper understanding of the issue and how it impacts you before you go ahead and delete the Facebook account you’ve loved and used for the last ten or so years. Here are some of the reactions we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, and what we think about them:

“Facebook knows my location all the time. This is stalking, I’m deleting my account”

Well, Facebook has always known where you were born, because you’ve set that on your profile, and where you live for the same reason. As for your current location, if the Location Services feature on your smartphone is switched on, Facebook will know where you are the same way Google Maps, the Weather app and a range of other services do. In fact, even without Location Services, your nearest cell-site triggering your mobile phone service or merely your IP address could easily give your location away. This has always been the case, and has been used by Facebook, Google and other platforms to target you with relevant ads. It’s nothing new. It’s how the internet works.

“Facebook listens in to my calls and reads my texts. I’m deleting Facebook”

There are two aspects to cover here. First, there was a recent story that started on Twitter when one user shared a Facebook data archive which contained a log of all his calls and texts including dates, time and recipients. This, in fact, is true for Android users and is only done by users’ permission. As part of setting up the Messenger app on Android, users can agree to allow the app to keep a log of their phone activity to enhance their user experience - by showing the people that they frequently contact at the top of their friends list for example. However, this does not mean that Facebook monitors the content of those calls and texts, it only utilises the log.

Second, if you’re in digital marketing you’ve probably heard of Facebook Topic Data. This basically means that Facebook categorises users’ interests, affinity, sentiment etc. based on topics they talk about across the platform. This helps brands to target more relevant audiences with their advertising. The two most important points here are that user data stays encrypted (i.e. private) and that Facebook Messenger is completely excluded from the data collection process. So, while your status updates or comments may be thrown in the mix, your private conversations are not. More information on Topic Data here: https://www.facebook.com/business/news/topic-data


So, what should you do?

  • It’s time to double check your current Facebook Privacy Settings. Facebook released a new and easy way to utilise those settings which allows users to control what information on their profile becomes public and what doesn’t. You can do all this by visiting Privacy Shortcuts under Settings in your Facebook app.
  • Be careful when using the “Sign in with Facebook” functionality which is available on many websites and apps. Make sure you use this only on trustworthy websites and apps.
  • Be wary of 3rd party apps asking for permission to access your profile information on Facebook. They will always downplay what they intend to access.
  • If you’re an advertiser, monitor the market closely and make sure you’re constantly informed. Millions still use Facebook every day including your customers and prospects. We don’t recommend abandoning Facebook as an advertising platform at all at this stage. However if Facebook is your only social play, it’s time to explore further.


What’s happening in New Zealand?

In a memo distributed to advertisers and marketers across New Zealand, ANZA (Association of NZ Advertisers) reiterated that for all the talk of #deletefacebook and recent announcements that advertisers may be pulling their ads from the platform, it is unlikely that people – and brands – will leave Facebook in significant numbers in the short term.”

ANZA also reminded all NZ advertisers of the imminent arrival of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation in May this year. This regulation, while only impacting NZ businesses that advertise in Europe, is likely to inspire changes to New Zealand’s own privacy legislations soon.

This will allow the government to tighten the handle on platforms like Facebook and Google - putting people, rather than data, first.

Incidentally, and perhaps with some relevance to the topic in hand, the NZ Privacy commissioner John Edwards and Facebook’s Global Deputy Chief Privacy Officer Stephen Deadman have been at it recently with a war of words regarding an on-going privacy complaint raised by an NZ user against Facebook. The complaint may not have much to do with the current scandal, but it is still privacy related. In observing the debate and the viewpoints of both Facebook and the NZ Privacy Commissioner, as well as the array of comments on the post, one can only see the complexity of the privacy matter from a legislative standpoint, which puts this whole debacle in perspective. Check out the full thread here https://www.facebook.com/facebookNZ/posts/1826914564027193

A final thought; Facebook has more than 2 billion monthly active users worldwide. In New Zealand there are over 3 million Kiwis who use Facebook, most of them spending an hour a day on it. It has become a standard commodity, playing a significant role in people’s lives, relationships and social outlook for over ten years now. On the other hand, more than 5 million businesses globally spent nearly $40 billion in advertising with Facebook in 2017 alone. That’s a 48% year on year growth. If there was ever a “too big to fail” organisation in the tech or advertising industry, Facebook is probably it. We think they’ll weather the storm, at least for the foreseeable future.

Mike Adly

Social & Content Strategy Partner