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The Marketing Edge - Facebook Advertising following the Cambridge Analytica scandal

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If you haven’t heard the news, a scandal is currently dominating discussions concerning Facebook. Here’s a quick rundown: Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm, was recently exposed by whistleblower and former employee Christopher Wylie for harvesting data for political purposes from more than 87 million Facebook users (the numbers have been climbing since the news broke, hence the varying numbers about how many were affected throughout the cited sources).

Before we wade too much into the discussion, here are two things you should know:

  1.     Whether this was a data breach is a murky subject. According to HubSpot, “While it can be argued that this personal data was used for less-than-savory purposes, one of the biggest misconceptions of this story is that it was a breach or hack of Facebook that allowed Cambridge Analytica to obtain the personal data of 50 million users. However, that's not what happened.” According to Facebook VP & Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal, “the claim that this is a data breach is completely false. Aleksandr Kogan [data scientist] requested and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent. People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.” The data was collected through an app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” which offered a personality test. Kogan then passed the data to Cambridge Analytica. The New York Times, however, reports that “the data Cambridge collected from profiles, a portion of which was viewed by The Times, included details on users’ identities, friend networks and ‘likes.’ Only a tiny fraction of the users had agreed to release their information to a third party.” The rest of the people who were affected were friends of those who gave the app permission to have their information.
  2.     It’s too early to know exactly how everything will play out. Since the scandal came to light, a few things have happened. A #deletefacebook movement began and Facebook’s stock price took a blow. Facebook has launched a new version of their API (application programming interface) and launched a new version of the Instagram API, both of which hint at changes concerning the way third-party vendors have access to Facebook information. For example, SEMrush, a search engine optimization platform, provides a social media tracking tool that has been disabled because of the changes to the Instagram API. SEMrush reported that these updates “were planned to be effective significantly later this year,” and that SEMrush was “caught unawares and…forced to bring…this news as a fait accompli.” It’s safe to assume given other reports, including articles from businesses such as Zendesk, that this change took many by surprise because of its abrupt nature. Zendesk reported that “Facebook recently announced some changes to their platform policies as well as a temporary policy review period. During this review period Facebook is not authorizing any integrations that request access to your Facebook Messages…including our Zendesk Support and Message products. At this time they are not de-authorizing existing application integrations.”

So how will this affect your Facebook advertising? In short, it probably won’t. If you're not a third party attempting to integrate with Facebook through their API, you are likely to be unaffected by the changes. As far as Facebook advertising goes, not much has changed for the average user. You can still boost posts, create ads, and reap the benefits of Facebook by using audience targeting. The only thing that may affect you is the outlook of Facebook users as time goes on. It’s hard to say if there will be a mass exodus from Facebook but given our nation’s reliance on technology and the platform, it’s unlikely that it will affect your Facebook page’s likes too much. If you use third party platforms to schedule posts on Facebook, things might be a little difficult for you for a while as well. Platforms such as Hootsuite recently released information about the API change, and there will be some major blows dealt to the platform’s functionality. Other scheduling tools are likely to encounter the same issues.

If you’re a Facebook user, you should know that Facebook gathers all this information about you anyway – that’s how their advertising works. What differentiates this scandal is that a third party was able to harvest the data Facebook collects through use of an unforeseen loophole. By using Facebook, you have given the platform permission to collect information about you. You can check out their data policy to learn more, but giving that permission was included in those pesky terms and conditions you had to agree to (and probably never read) when you created an account. Facebook knows a lot about you – including what kind of device you use, the pages you like, the people and groups you’re connected to, and much more.

An end note: before this scandal, many businesses were doing the same thing as Cambridge Analytica. The reason why this has become such big news is because they were acting as a consulting firm for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the information could have been used to guide Russia’s voter targeting scheme.

In short, it’s too early to know exactly how the Cambridge Analytica scandal will play out, but keeping up with developments in this case as it moves forward will give us hints as to how and if Facebook advertising will be affected.

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