Cambridge Analytica & Facebook expose our naivety


As each day passes, the Cambridge Analytica data “incident” shows us as much about ourselves as it does about Facebook.

While the media focus has been largely upon the relationship between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it has exposed something far more telling – about the relationship we think we have with our preferred platforms and their view of their relationship with us.

Despite sensing that the turbines that power Facebook – and all the other key digital platforms in our lives – do not run on community goodwill, we have lived in denial. Clearly, denial is no longer possible.

So, what is the basis of our outrage?

This is where things start to get confused. Some people are outraged that their sense of security has been threatened – but seem quietly comforted that Facebook might be brought down a peg as a result. Others are concerned about recent political manipulation but seem to constrain their outrage to the alleged activities of the Trump campaign. Others just seem to feel that their trust in a public institution has been betrayed.

What is obvious is that we have been spectacularly successful in concealing the true nature of our preferred social platforms from ourselves in favour of a more convenient utilitarian version.

It’s easy to do. After all, the term “social media” itself implies sort of shared community ownership. In our fervour to claim ownership of the poster children of the second digital wave, we have convinced ourselves that these entities are somehow public property; a passive conduit through which our thoughts, behaviour and relationships travel between one social contact and another.

To find that we are not at the helm but instead simply providing fuel for a booming automated, interwoven and highly targeted marketing machine has come as a somewhat demeaning surprise.

There is now a glaring dissonance between our belief that we are in a caring relationship with the host of our online communities and the commercial imperative that drives Facebook and others.

They have a business to run and growth targets to meet. And it’s certainly not just Facebook. Douglas Rushkoff recently levelled similar concerns about an unrelenting “growth at all costs” mentality at Google.

It’s not surprising that we feel this way – although the reasons run deeper than immediately apparent.

What is surprising is that we ever thought that these platforms were benign.

The truth is that has always been in the nature of these platforms to collect and monetise our data.

The digital sector has known since the bust that online companies are valued in part based on their membership and the potential to monetise that member data trails of their members to market back to them. The more data these platforms know, the better they can live up to market expectation. The market has valued Facebook in part on their ability to successfully do that.

And it would be a mistake to think that the market punished Facebook out of some sense of civic duty. It’s far more likely that investors sold down on the expectation that the exposure of FB’s data collection would result in constraints being placed upon its current targeting methods; making it less attractive to marketers. Less targeting, less revenue.

Not surprisingly, Facebook announced last week that its clients will need to seek the permission of its customers before creating profile-based custom audiences. This feels like Facebook backing away from the edge of the revenue precipice, but it does less to prevent another Cambridge Analytica incident and more to provide a much higher level of commercial insulation than it has had to date.

Nothing so far seems to stop the collecting or prevent the control that Facebook has over the information that finds its way into our feeds.

Facebook’s financial model relies heavily on its ability to deliver highly targeted marketing messages. This was obvious at the Senate enquiry. According to the Decode account…

Senator Hatch asked how Facebook expects to keep its business going without charging users. Mark Zuckerberg paused, and said “Senator, we run ads”.

(BTW, it’s worth reading the full Decode Senate hearing transcript.)

It is the marketing revenue from these ads, combined with funding from investors keen to see Facebook keep running them, that has driven the development of Facebook’s formidable targeting capabilities.

While Facebook maintains that they do not “sell” user information to third parties, this is only part of the picture. Marketers have known for years that they can target consumers against a range of criteria that Facebook collects.

While there seems little question that Cambridge Analytica used the extra data derived from their app and their big data grunt to turbo-charge the base data, the fact remains that advertisers have been able to utilise Facebook user data indirectly since custom audiences became possible in 2012.

Facebook provides marketers with the ability to reach very specific groups of people based on common attitudes and make them want to buy things. When those things are runners, cosmetics or tyres, we don’t seem to be especially concerned. In the interests of making the viewing of ads that we probably don’t need somehow more “enjoyable”, we have primed and fuelled the engine with our data and allowed its capability to grow.

In fact, an entire industry has developed to collect our data and use it to “make our online experience a more valuable and fulfilling” consumer experience. Whether we want it or not.

Up until now, this has seemed like a seemingly benign undertaking. After all, who cares if information and ads for kitchen appliances follow us around Facebook and the broader internet.

But the Cambridge Analytica has demonstrated that the system can use our data for far more powerful and potentially dangerous uses. If our data forms the basis for a system that can identify groups of common interest, values and associations and target specific messages that echo and validate their specific worldview, it is capable of much, much more.  It’s the same system – it’s just that the product is now a highly specific, highly personalised political position.

What seemed so innocent when it marketed our preferred brand of athletic apparel has shown its true capacity and it is this genie that we are desperately trying to push back into the bottle.

Ok, so now we know. Now what?

So now the global population of Facebook knows as well; although it is still grappling with what it means. What is very clear is that we can no longer deny that our data and social connections are being collected and can be used to change our views.

We now know as a community what marketers and investors have known for years; the platforms that play such a huge part in our lives are not the benevolent, passive enablers we managed to tell ourselves they were. They are active collectors driven by a need for growth, and we provide them with immense volumes of data about ourselves, and by association, our friends, families and those who share our values and beliefs.

There is some doubt as to where things go from here. What is apparent is that we need to stop pretending that this was an isolated breach and acknowledge that we are feeding the technology that is making this happen. We need to acknowledge that publicly listed platforms are there to monetise what they know about us, and are under enormous pressure to produce the results that the market expects.

This is the wake-up call that we can no longer ignore

While we can take Facebook to task for the company they keep with third parties like Cambridge Analytica, it is flawed logic to take them to task for betraying our trust. The fault lies with us for bestowing trust on them in the first place.

Likewise, calls for greater regulation are missing the point. While there may be a case for greater regulation or at least oversight of how these behemoth platforms operate, there is a more pressing need for us as individuals to acknowledge their commercial nature and to take responsibility for regulating the depth and volume of information we provide.

Platforms are not simply a community service, and they are not our friends. We inhabit them at our own risk. We should be sure that we take careful note of the terrain in which we live and the tracks that we leave – either now or down the track.

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