Cambridge Analytica’s scraping of Facebook data has generated a backlash against the social media giant that could have repercussions for digital consultants.
Since the scraping story broke March 17, lawmakers in DC and the U.K. demanded public testimony and started mulling added regulation. Major brand marketers began rethinking their ad budgets for the site and a movement to delete personal accounts has high-profile backers ranging from Cher to Elon Musk to Whatsapp co-founder Brian Acton. Then there’s the lawsuits.
Over the past two weeks, C&E has asked a group of digital consultants how they were reacting to the news that CA had harvested some 50 million Facebook users’ data without their knowledge or consent.
While some practitioners said privately they’ve grown uncomfortable with the power of Facebook – albeit not to the level they’ve stopped using it – those who would go on the record said they remain committed to a digital strategy that incorporated paid Facebook advertising.
"Our spending decisions are determined by where our audience spends their screen time,” said Joe Clements, co-founder of the Florida-based Strategic Digital Services. “While media and politicos are paying attention to the CA story, we don't see evidence it has impacted consumer or voter behavior."
Another GOP digital practitioner likened the issue to people who don’t donate to campaigns complaining about over-the-top email fundraising solicitations.
Others simply shrugged off the controversy. To wit, the #deleteFacebook movement would have to start racking up millions of adherents to make a dent in the site’s reach. “Facebook is bigger in terms of reach than all broadcast channels combined,” one digital practitioner noted.
Still, some brand advertisers are taking action during this controversy. Mozilla, the wireless speaker company Sonos and auto-parts retailer Pep Boys suspended ads on the site, and are reportedly“watching to see if the scandal reduces Facebook’s use by consumers.”
While those companies may have the luxury of time to see how things play out, campaigns and groups – particularly those engaged in looming primaries or runoffs – can’t wait afford to risk losing out on the opportunity to reach voters.
“Social media has proven to be remarkably powerful in influencing voter's perceptions and preferences,” said Brian Ross Adams, a Los Angeles-based digital consultant. “Putting aside the revelations about data theft and the like, digital strategist can still use existing and legal targeting means to reach the voters that they need to reach.”
Adams also predicted that many of the users who are now deleting their accounts will soon come back to the site, in part, because “they are using the Facebook platform to make these announcements.”
In fact, there’s evidence that runs counter to Adams’ prediction.
A recent survey of 1,000 adults nationwide by Lincoln Park Strategies found that 12 percent of respondents have become what they referred to as Pocketbook Activists.
These are people likely to make spending decisions according to their political beliefs. For instance, those who deleted the Uber app after the company instituted surge pricing in some cities in January 2017 after President Trump’s travel ban was issued.
The firm notes: “30 percent of Pocketbook Activists are more likely to move purchases away from a company, while 25 [percent] report being more likely to move money towards a company.”
While Facebook accounts are free, the principle of punishing a company for its public posture on an issue carries over.
Meanwhile, some consultants are sounding the alarm over another issue: data security for their supporters.
“As it is, Facebook has access to an insane amount of data about us, which we trust them not to give away, sell, whether purposely or accidentally through an API loophole, to be used for targeting,” said Emily Gittleman, digital director at the San Francisco-based 50+1 Strategies.
“If we were freaked out by their targeting before, we should still be exactly as freaked out now, except now we have confirmation that we shouldn't trust them with our information.”
Gittleman noted that Facebook has made moves to tighten restrictions on targeting in the past.
“The restrictions are very basic, more of a Band-Aid for a bullet wound type of thing, and do not address the wider problems,” she said. “Nor is it enough to actually prove they care about how their platform has been exploited for political gain.”
Now, Facebook is taking more steps to assuage Gittleman’s concerns. On Wednesday it announced the wind down of its Partner Categories, which allow third-party data providers to offer their targeting directly on the platform.
“While this is common industry practice, we believe this step, winding down over the next six months, will help improve people’s privacy on Facebook,” the company said.