So what’s happened to Facebook’s usage rates since news of Cambridge Analytica’s data misuse broke, and the #deletefacebook movement began?
Not much, apparently. That’s going on information from Facebook – according to Facebook’s VP of Global Marketing Carolyn Everson, the majority of users haven’t updated their privacy settings in response, and advertiser activity remains steady.
As Everson told The Wall Street Journal:
“We’ve not seen wild changes in behavior with people saying I’m not going to share any data with Facebook anymore.”
That sentiment supports CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement to Congress in response to a similar query last week. Responding to a question about how the scandal had impacted usage, Zuckerberg noted that they’d seen ‘no meaningful impact’ to on-platform activity.
But is that really a surprise?
Sure, all the noise about Cambridge Analytica and the way in which the company reportedly sought to manipulate people’s emotions as part of the 2016 US Presidential campaign certainly raised a lot of concerned voices. But Facebook, and social media more broadly, is now an integral part of our interactive process. The chances of people quitting social platforms is probably not that high.
And yet, that’s really the only way to stop such data misuse - the insights Cambridge Analytica reportedly accessed were initially obtained through legal means, using the systems academics had available to them. There are, of course, questions over the way the company tapped into those insights, and how they accessed the profiles of friends of people who’d participated in the personality quiz which obtained the initial response data. But still, they didn’t necessarily need all of those insights to create a highly informed strategy.
Your Facebook activity alone is indicative enough to use as a targeting weapon, and will remain so while people use it. No amount of regulation is necessarily going to change that – the only way to stop your data being used for advertising purposes, and potentially misused as a result, is to stop submitting it completely.
And therein lies the real issue.
The real quandry raised by the Cambridge Analytica issue is the challenge of privacy versus convenience. We’re uploading more and more of our personal data every day – via Facebook, via your phone, via your fitness tracker, your supermarket loyalty card. All of these data points could theoretically be used for political ad targeting.
For example, it’s a fairly safe bet that people who regularly purchase organic chicken and free range eggs are going to be more concerned about, or aware of, animal welfare issues. You could obtain that insight from a supermarket loyalty card provider – that’s fairly basic, but with a broad enough data set, you could map out much more indicative trends using the same info.
So why do people use loyalty cards? Because they provide discounts, incentives which add to your experience. Because they provide targeted ads – through the data you submit, supermarkets can offer you special prices on the products you regularly purchase, custom savings tailored directly to you. And that's convenient, that's helpful. Who cares if they know what you buy if that information provides you with a more personalized, better shopping experience?
You can apply the same logic to Facebook – few people are concerned about the prospects of Liking and commenting on different things online because they don’t see how those small actions could possibly be indicative of their personal leanings and habits. But they can, yet the benefits of being connected, of communicating on Facebook, staying in touch, staying up to date on the latest news from friends – all of the things Facebook now provides clearly outweigh such concerns, even now as they’re being highlighted more specifically.
Are people going to stop using Facebook? I doubt it – the platform has more than 2 billion users, and its active usage rates have increased quarter on quarter on quarter.
Will people stop sharing things on social? Don’t think so, it’s become too significant an element in how we connect.
And as noted, the same question needs to be posed in relation to other data sharing activities – will you take off your Fitbit, stop using store loyalty cards, switch off the GPS in your car? Probably not, because all these tools provide significant benefit – we’ve come to rely on them in our day-to-day activities.
So will anything change in the wake of Cambridge Analytica? Surely, you’d expect, the platforms themselves will be re-assessing the way third parties can access their data.
But for Facebook specifically – again, as noted by Everson:
“[We] aren’t anticipating major changes to our overall revenue and business model.”
Indeed, Facebook shares have increased since Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony.
As is evident by the rapid rate at which we tick that ‘I agree’ box when signing up for digital tools and apps, convenience trumps privacy. And it’s difficult to see that changing anytime soon.