On March 17, the world was introduced to Christopher Wylie, the ex-research director for Cambridge Analytica. In an article for The Guardian, Wylie revealed secret actions of the British political consulting firm that harvested and then exploited the data of over 50 million Facebook users for political ends. Following this explosive account of corruption, electoral cheating and fraudulent use of personal information, Facebook’s stock value plummeted by $75 billion—and soon after, the #deletefacebook movement began to gain momentum.
Although a large number of people around the world are feeling betrayed by Facebook and disgusted by Cambridge Analytica’s actions, as an advertising professional, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I am totally fascinated by their methods, analysis and the impressive results they delivered. Putting aside ethical concerns, Cambridge Analytica may just be the best integrated agency ever. They collected an unprecedented amount of data using a psychological filter to generate practical and coherent data models. According to Wylie, the psychographic profiles helped them create personalized content. This combination of media microtargeting and personalized content resulted in a mass effect that, to be perfectly honest, is the dream of many advertisers and agencies.
On the other hand, beyond Cambridge Analytica’s technical tour-de-force, I remain puzzled. How did a big player like Facebook allow such a thing to happen? Don’t forget—the Cambridge Analytica scandal didn’t start the #deletefacebook movement. Since the last U.S. presidential election, the integrity of our Facebook feed has been hotly debated. Impact reports and the very public departure of Facebook execs continue to roll in, reminding us of the social platform’s dark side. Remember the Arab Spring, when Facebook was a champion of modern democracy? That was a long time ago.
If even a minority of current Facebook users choose to protect their data by joining the #deletefacebook movement, will that be enough to move the platform to action? Facebook plays an integral role in our digital lives: it’s our gateway to other websites and we haven’t stopped using other applications belonging to Mark Zuckerberg (Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.). Despite Wylie’s revelations, Facebook and Google are still the uncontested regents of digital data, making them increasingly more difficult to avoid.
But a scandal of this enormity will force Facebook to fundamentally change its methods and to communicate in a more transparent manner—otherwise, the revelations will continue to wreak havoc. The Cambridge Analytica story also puts the spotlight one of our major industry concerns: the ethics of collecting, accessing and using data. Incidentally, this scandal coincides with a major reform of EU data protection rules. These changes will have ripple effects in Canada and around the world. In May 2018, General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR) will replace Data Protective Directive (DPR), which was implemented in… 1995! Since then, DPR has regulated the use of personal data, including the names, photos, email addresses and personal identification numbers of Internet users. With GDPR, the definition of “personal data” has expanded and now includes data that we use in our industry every day, such as IP address, device identifier, geolocation, etc. Furthermore, a user’s physical, psychological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural and social identity will also be considered as personal data. Consent to use this data will be more explicit and more concise with GDPR.
Meanwhile, the general public is more demanding than ever when it comes to data protection and we will see even more regulations in coming years to manage and define what advertisers do. Facebook is not the only one that should be worried about the #deletefacebook movement—agencies should be rethinking their practices too.
Article originally published in French on Infopresse.
Image from Factor Daily