A Wake Up Call for Facebook and Other Big Data Providers

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The recent data breach involving Facebook and the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica raises some important questions for any company that  uses social media platforms to advertise and communicate.

Here at Spake Media, a big part of our day is spent using all of these amazing online tools — Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and so on — to raise awareness about important social and environmental issues. In order to get “heard above the noise” our agency tries to get the right message to the right audience, and Facebook plays a big role for us in that work.

So, for instance, we will take a video on solar power in California and advertise that information to people on Facebook who have shown an interest in renewable energy and live in the state of California. This approach allows us to not only spend our client’s advertising dollars efficiently, but also direct our ads to those who are most likely interested in the issue/topic. This means we aren’t bugging people on Facebook with topic matter they’re not interested in.

Like the vast majority of people working in digital marketing, we never access the personal data of the individuals that make up an audience we are advertising to. First off, it is almost impossible to do, given that the functionality Cambridge Analytica used to access personal data was shut down in 2014. And secondly, we have never really found the need to go more granular than the standard Facebook ad dashboard to do our work.

However, this controversy  still raises an important discussion point: at what level of detail does advertising data need to be offered to advertisers? At what point does a sample of anonymous people become so detailed that it is not really anonymous data anymore? Should advertisers be able to map their audience to the point where they can begin to use psychological constructs?

These are important questions that Facebook and other similar companies like Google should be asking now and not just in reaction to these latest revelations, but as part of their ongoing work. It is also important for government regulators to address these questions and take appropriate action, like what we are seeing in the EU as we speak.

One thing is for certain: this latest scandal surrounding Facebook should be a wake-up call for anyone using data on the platform — and on other major platforms like Google — in ways that contravene privacy laws in their country or any other country they work in. If you are a client of a social media marketing company, you should insist that your supplier be up to speed on the data privacy laws in the appropriate jurisdictions.

Hopefully this scandal raises the bar for everyone — the companies that advertise online and the companies like Facebook and Google whose revenue models depend almost entirely on selling advertisements online.