What a week for Facebook.
Sparked by the revelations of misuse by political lobbying group Cambridge Analytica late last week, Zuck and Co. have been dragged over the coals by virtually every major media outlet – and in most respects, they’re rightfully being faced with some tough questions.
As we noted in our post on the issue, concerns around Facebook’s vast databanks, and the ways in which that data could potentially be misused, have been simmering for some years, becoming more significant at times, then dying down again. Because Facebook has become habitual, because the trade-off seems relatively small. Because various tools and tech-enabled devices are now tracking every element of your day-to-day existence – even if you stopped using Facebook, you’d still be giving up your data on various other levels.
And while that last point is true, Facebook is still the keeper of the largest database of personal insights that has ever existed. Credit card companies know where you go, what you spend, what you buy. Supermarket loyalty schemes know your purchase habits, your travel patterns (in combination with fuel rewards). There are other ways to gather personal data, but Facebook, through its sheer scale, is much more than this.
It may not have been Facebook’s intention to become an all-encompassing people database, but it is, and that, as the broader discussion is now angling, comes with significant responsibility.
But what does this really mean for Facebook? Are we going to see users switch off, outraged by what’s gone on?
Is this the end for The Social Network?
In a word, no – here’s an overview of some of the flow-on impacts, and what they might mean for the company.
“Elon Quits Facebook”
As noted, with the latest Facebook scandal reaching fever pitch, many people have discussed getting off Facebook entirely, quitting cold turkey and refusing to give the company any more data. British band Massive Attack deleted their Facebook Page, the first high profile response to the news - but a bigger name taking the same action was Elon Musk, who deleted both the SpaceX and Tesla Facebook Pages, both of which had around 2.6 million followers each.
That’s bad news for The Social Network, right? Big name companies switching off Facebook entirely can’t be good. Yet in this case, it’s hard to see the move as anything more than symbolic.
In Massive Attack’s case, their decision is based on their values – the band has long advocated for various causes and political issues, so it’s not surprising to see them take a stance. In regards to Musk, he also noted that his companies don’t really utilize Facebook much anyway, so no major impact.
Oh, and he's keeping their branded Instagram accounts going – because, according to Musk, Instagram’s ‘fairly independent’.
Musk’s stance highlights the reach and influence of Facebook, and the broader lack of awareness over just how far the platform’s tentacles now stretch. While a growing number of people have joined the #deletefacebook chorus, most are not saying the same about Instagram. Or WhatsApp. Or Messenger.
Indeed, various reports have indicated that users upset about Facebook’s conduct are switching to Instagram, with many of them not even aware that Facebook owns both platforms. If you’re not happy with Facebook tracking your data and logging your activity in order to use that information for ad targeting, you’re not making any statement by utilizing their various other apps.
That’s the real sting – while Facebook itself has more than 2 billion users, those other three apps now have more than 3.6 billion combined. The entire population of Earth is around 7.6 billion, which gives you some perspective on just how entwined Facebook is – and these apps aren’t even available in the most populous nation, and in many low connectivity regions.
It might seem like a logical, even necessary step to stop using Facebook, but cutting Zuck and Co. out of your life entirely will likely prove harder than you think.
And that’s before you consider the FOMO aspect – if you quit Facebook, you’ll be missing out on all the updates from your friends. Maybe, if you could convince all of them to leave, you might be okay, but that’s a tough ask. This is the same reason why it’s so difficult for newer social apps to break into the market, because in order for them to be valuable, you need to convince your entire friendship networks to come across.
There’s a reason why researchers have likened the addictive elements of the platform to those provided by hard drugs.
Quitting Facebook also overlooks one other crucial element – that, really, it’s too late anyway.
The data that Cambridge Analytica, and many others, have accessed was from 2014, before Facebook moved to lock down more aspects of their data. As I noted this week, those insights are still valuable, and largely indicative of personality traits and habits, but that data has also already been recorded.
If you’ve used Facebook already, they already have all this, and there’s no real way for Facebook to get it all back. In his various interviews this week, Zuckerberg noted that they’ll be undertaking ‘forensic audits’ in any cases where they suspect their data may have been misused. Which is great, but it’s only being done in retrospect – and you can bet that of all those various apps and tools which took in Facebook data before the changes, at least some of the individuals involved are now looking through what they have, with a view to selling it to the highest bidder.
The data is already out there – you can stop Facebook taking more, definitely. But the benefits of doing so are debatable.
As explained in The Atlantic, millions of Facebook apps had been created before the company changed its data restrictions, which means that a heap of individuals and companies already have access to Facebook’s data.
Now, you might think that that information is from four years ago, it’s not valid now, but that would be incorrect. Due to the way in which you can use that information, it’s actually just as indicative now as it was then – and will remain so, likely forever.
The trick, as we noted in an earlier post, is in scale.
For example, if you had access to all of Facebook’s data points, you could go through and list all the likes of people who are members of, say, racist groups. You could then cross reference those likes and come out with a list of commonalities – people who like this group are also 95% likely to like ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’.
Based on that insight, you could then take those commonalities and match them against all of the Facebook data you have. Now, even though those other members have not outright expressed support of the same group and or viewpoints, you know that there’s a very high likelihood that they’ll be susceptible to the same messaging.
Extrapolate that example to the trillions of data points you have access too through Facebook activity and you can imagine just how powerful – and accurate – those predictions could be. For instance, it wouldn’t ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ as your commonalities, you could match up hundreds, even thousands of data points.
Studies have also already linked Facebook activity to psychological leanings, so there’s already existing templates for such insight. Trends may change over time, but the underlying links between these data points will likely remain the same – you could take the profile of a person who joined Facebook last year and cross-reference it against these data points and you’d come up with an accurate profile of that person.
With so many users, and so much data, there’s truly no telling just how it could be manipulated to uncover relevant trends and leanings. And this already exists, it won’t matter if you shut down your Facebook profile now. You could do it in protest, as Massive Attack has done, but the impact will remain the same. Unless Facebook can find a way to get all of its data back, and delete all reference and record of it outside of the company, the problem will remain.
And there’s simply no way they’ll be able to achieve this.
So what then - just sit back and accept your data is being used and abused, and be okay with it?
The attitude here might seem a little defeatist, but that’s the core of the issue – that Facebook can’t correct it. The company’s doing all it can, but as noted, that won’t be enough - it'll be possible, now and in future, for companies and individuals to use these insights to target their messaging and hone in on very specific audiences, and they may even be able to manipulate popular opinion based on such.
Even if Facebook eliminated ads on their platform, that still wouldn’t erase the problem, as you can use the same data for targeting in many other ways. And even if this never happened and no one else had access to these insights outside of Facebook, Facebook itself still would, along with much, much more.
Is that acceptable? Can we really trust a corporate entity with so much insight?
This is the real crux of the problem – it’s not that Cambridge Analytica or any other organization used Facebook data, it’s that so much data even exists in the first place. Take Facebook out of the equation and there’s still a heap of other sources you could refer to - we’re in an age where big data has become part of how we live, and that can also be used in negative ways. The broader debate here isn't even really about Facebook, it’s about the way in which data is stored and shared, and the ethics of such use.
Is there a way to police this? Can you even detect and enforce data usage rules? As noted, Facebook's doing all it can, but there’s really not a heap they can do. This is one of the core issues of our time - and it’s only likely to get worse (fitness trackers, smart assistants, etc.).
So how will this really impact Facebook? I’d say it won’t change a lot. People will be upset, regulators will examine the case, moves will be made. But at the end of the day, the platform has become such a huge part of everyday interaction that people will likely just continue on.
Does that mean you can be targeted by political ads designed to play to your leanings? Yes. Does that mean you should question everything? Yes.
Will that matter? I don’t know.
But it certainly isn’t set to get any simpler moving forward.