Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

In light of the recent scandal, we worked with our global team to delve into the issue and its potential impact on the industry. For further reading, our Managing Director @SuzSha spoke to AdNews about the debacle. If you have questions or would like to chat further, reach out to us here or on Twitter @wearesocialau

What happened?

On the 18th of March, both The New York Times and The Guardian UK published reports alleging Cambridge Analytica harvested the Facebook profiles of 50 million users unlawfully in order to hypertarget voters in US and UK elections and political activities. More recently, the firm has worked to convince voters to vote for Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, as well as to vote leave in the UK European Referendum campaign.

As a result of this, Facebook has met with massive criticism from consumers and politicians. People are calling for Facebook to answer questions about the so-called “leak,” and there has been a movement for people and brands to delete their Facebook pages. Furthermore, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have been called upon to appear before both Congress and the UK Parliament to answer questions about this data and how it was used to influence the elections.

As a consequence of this and the negative coverage, the share price of Facebook has declined significantly (approx. 18% as of 28th March).

What was unethical / unlawful?

Cambridge Analytica allegedly built up the consumer insights pool legitimately through a personality predictions survey and app on Facebook called ‘thisisyourdigitallife.’ As part of the program, the research team paid 27,000 individuals a small fee to take a personality quiz and download the app, which scraped private information and data from their profiles. However, after giving the app permission, it also accessed the information and data of all their friends on Facebook.

This was done using the first version of Facebook Graph’s API (a developer, or app-level, interface used to understand and access people’s social lives), which allowed apps, through its extended permissions, to “request a huge range of users’ friends’ info without much friction or communicating the reason(s) for providing consent. Once authorised with a single prompt, v1.0 app could potentially remain in the background collecting and processing people’s data — and that of their entire friend network — for years.

Using the API in this way wasn’t against Facebook’s policies, at the time, and it was done by a significant number of data companies, and Facebook was very well aware of that. The legal issue with this is that, although the apps obtained consent to collect and use the original user’s personal information, no consent was given from their friends. “This means that the debate stemming from use of the term “breach,” while not accurate from a systems-level computer security standpoint, is arguably legally correct in regards to the lack of informed consent by the “data subjects.” Meaning before the mass collection, processing, and re-sharing of users friends’ personal information.

This version of the API was launched in April 2010. It was announced that it would shut down at f8 in April 2014 and officially close on April 30, 2015. Reasons stated at the time by Facebook for this change was to “put people first” and “give users more control of their data.”

What Facebook is doing about it

What this means for our clients and other advertisers

Whilst the public outcry is largely centered around the unauthorised use of data and manipulation for political purposes, everyone involved in marketing on Facebook should be aware of the increased scrutiny their targeting activity will be exposed to. At We Are Social, our Facebook user targeting is only ever based on data that consumers have given permission to be used, so none of our clients’ ad bookings on Facebook need to be withdrawn for data reasons. However, there are a few considerations for our clients and other advertisers springing from the debate:


Other questions

Hasn’t Facebook been collecting our data since the beginning?


Do we think advertisers should stop using Facebook as a marketing and ad channel?

How have consumers reacted?

There have been around 450K mentions of #deletefacebook since the story broke (to 15-28th March). Elon Musk is one notable deleter, having  deleted his personal Facebook account and that of Tesla. However, Elon himself commented that he didn’t actually know the pages even existed and the number of regular users who have deleted their accounts has been unnoticeable. For the average consumer, deleting Facebook is easier said than done.

The issue is that Facebook has become such an integrated part of our social infrastructure, with Messenger and Events being a large part of connecting people. As such, people are likely to continue to use Facebook, and due to its reach and scale, it will likely maintain its status within the media mix.

What is likely to happen, though, is that users will become more aware of the data technology companies and social platforms hold about them and be more critical of what they sign up for and how their data is used.

Our conclusion

Facebook is doing what it can to accommodate the demands of the consumers in regards to their data, but we expect to see greater regulation in this area. Facebook has probably already been preparing for a higher level of privacy control and transparency in response to the upcoming GDPR regulation.

However, as we have seen in other industries, brands are facing more and more pressure to take responsibility for what happens at every stage of the supply chain, and technology companies and social platforms are likely to come under the same pressure in the future. Even though Facebook received legally binding assurance from Cambridge Analytica that the data had been deleted, this will be far from enough in the future. They will be held accountable for suppliers or third-party partners misusing the data they collect, and they will be responsible for protecting their consumers and their data in an ethical way.

The tighter control of third party apps and usage of their data should prevent future issues of this scale, but as social media data regulation is a new area, further unforeseen issues are to be expected. Just following the Cambridge Analytica case, it was revealed that Facebook has been logging calls and texts on some Android phones as far back as 2015. We should be ready to amend our approach to work and targeting if other situations arise where Facebook or any other platform is in the crosshairs.

Sources/ Further reading: