Did the Cambridge Analytica scandal kill Facebook Marketing?


Facebook has been used as a marketing tool, networking device, and connection tool for years now, creating a space that we now call ‘Social Media Marketing’. What once began in the early years of the World Wide Web as a place for multi-player online games, transitioned into the Web 2.0, where personal connection was established and e-commerce emerged (Brogan, 2017). Social media has now become a vortex of loopholes allowing marketers to exploit personal preferences and information in an effort to ‘connect’ with potential customers. This poses the question; is Facebook an ethical form of marketing, or should we go back to good ol’ classic newspaper ads and radio snippets? Following the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, some would argue the latter, however as social media managers, there may still be the possibility of reconciliation as we continue to find ways to connect with our target markets without crossing any personal boundaries.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal unraveled in early 2018, when whistleblowers leaked knowledge of exploitation of personal details of some 50 million Facebook users (Learn all about it here). The information was gathered by Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who created an app called ‘This Is Your Digital Life’, which took information from social media accounts for “Research Purposes” back in 2014. The reasoning behind the data harvesting was unclear, and certainly did not explicitly explain what the data it would be used for, and although he harvested the data legally and according to Facebook’s data collection guidelines, he did not abide by these rules when it came to sharing this information.

Dr. Kogan built his own app and in June 2014 began harvesting data for Cambridge Analytica.
He ultimately provided over 50 million raw profiles to the firm, said Christopher Wylie, a data expert who oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting. Only about 270,000 users — those who participated in the survey — had consented to having their data harvested, though they were all told that it was being used for academic use.
Facebook said no passwords or “sensitive pieces of information” had been taken, though information about a user’s location was available to Cambridge.
— (New York Times, 2018)

Fast forward to 2018, when sources leaked information that this data was used to influence the US election, and thus the launch of #DeleteFacebook came upon us (we wrote all about it at the time here), and Facebook’s stock price dropped by 14% over night. It was this jarring news that left us as consumers feeling exploited and unsafe online (link), and as marketers feeling uncertain about our future in online marketing (link). Whilst Mark Zuckerberg did release statements shortly after the release of information stating that Facebook will be investigating apps connected to the platform, changing the security and access to data that app developers have, and making terms and conditions clearer in regards to what information apps have access to, there is still progress that needs to be made from all parties when it comes to protecting and using information and data.

As consumers, having our information in the form of social media profiles online allows us to connect with family and friends, as well as expand our networks with like-minded people. As we can see in the table below, our reasoning for using social media is evidently for entertainment, convenience, and social interaction, and being in a busy world, having these things in the palm of our hand makes life easier (Alhabash & Ma, 2017)!

We, as humans, crave connection, and we have since we first existed. Humans place value on need for relationships, skill-set development, motivation, and well-being, however, how we connect to fulfil these needs has changed with technological advancements (Hoffman & Novak, 2012). We now develop relationships through ‘Friending’ other people, develop our skills among communities in Facebook groups, grow motivation through the encouragement of ‘likes’ and ‘reactions’, and centre our well-being on the influence that other individuals have on us. In reality, we can get everything that we, as humans, need from Facebook, so is this need for connection worth risking our identity on the internet?

Back in 2004, when a 19-year-old Zuckerberg had just started building Facebook, he sent his Harvard friends a series of instant messages in which he marvelled at the fact that 4,000 people had volunteered their personal information to his nascent social network. “People just submitted it ... I don’t know why ... They ‘trust me’ ... dumb people.” Fourteen years later, the number of people who have trusted Zuckerberg with their data has grown from 4,000 to 2 billion.
— (The Guardian, 2018)

Apparently not, because as we saw, in response to the leaking of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, #DeleteFacebook trend on rival social media network, Twitter (Dudley-Nicholson, 2018). Tweets sent out on the platform highlighted the broken trust that users now had with Facebook, after believing that their profiles were safe from data harvesting.

Tweets included statements like “If you don't pay for the product you ARE the product. Facebook sells all of your information to the highest and lowest bidders. Why sell yourself so cheaply? #deleteFacebook” What began as a suggestion quickly became a solution, as articles and information was released on the difference between ‘deleting’ and ‘deactivating’ your Facebook account, and the consequences of the two: deleting meaning completely taking down your Facebook profile, whereas deactivating which temporarily dismisses your account, allowing you to pick up where you left off whenever you felt motivated to.  

But, is there any point in deleting Facebook? Just as the earlier Guardian article stated, “...even if you’ve got multiple ways to communicate and participate in society online, there is not really a good replacement for Facebook. There’s no one portal that reminds you of your friends’ birthdays, connects you to relatives across the world and stores photos from 10 years ago. Deleting Facebook inevitably means missing out on certain things and having to make more of an effort to connect with people in other ways. What’s more, unless you delete Facebook’s entire ecosystem of apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, you aren’t safeguarding yourself from the company’s data-collection practices,” (The Guardian 2018)

The solution to this might not be as simple as #deletingFacebook, but it also might leave room for growth on the platform, rather than complete abandonment.