The calm after the storm: what damage has the Facebook ‘data breach’ left in its wake for the world of digital marketing?

23 April 2018

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You would have to be living on the moon not to have heard the recent revelations regarding Facebook’s  data breach. Since the story broke that Cambridge Analytica ‘acquired and exploited’ data from 50 million Facebook profiles, Facebook shares have plummeted by a staggering $60 billion; no small amount, even for multi-billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg. What’s more, the #DeleteFacebook movement continues to gain traction, thanks to powerful backers including SpaceX’s Elon Musk.

Whilst the reality of a Facebook-free future may be hard to envisage, there is no doubt that we are entering a period of change. Nielson recently reporting 24% decrease in the average time spent on the platform. Consumers are modifying their views on data sharing and are becoming increasingly vigilant over the content that they post to social media. At the very least, many people have already updated their Facebook privacy settings.

But what does all this mean to the digital marketing industry? According to eMarketer forecasts, one quarter of all UK digital ad spend (£3.3bn) will be funneled into social media platforms in 2018, with the total invested in the medium set to overtake TV by 2020.  This is despite a Nielson recently reporting 24% decrease in the average time spent on the platform.

To its detriment, the digital marketing industry has over the years become embroiled in clandestine techniques, data-grabbing and even the promotion of fake news. Such methods have long been viewed as a means to an end, a necessary evil.  But in light of these recent revelations and the subsequent public outcry, we have to ask ourselves: are they really necessary?

Obviously, the practice of marketing is by definition concerned with the creation of psychological profiles in order to influence people’s choices and spending habits. And what Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have been doing is neither original nor unique. But the sheer scale of it is quite terrifying and has transformed widely-used and accepted marketing tactics into a modern-day scandal.

If we’re completely honest, it seems unlikely that many brands will follow Sonos and Mozilla in abandoning Facebook completely. Facebook advertising might not be perfect, but it is generally effective. And failing a mass exodus of Facebook users, advertisers will continue to use the site. eMarketer has predicted that spending on social advertising will rise by 24% before the year is out.

So perhaps what’s really needed is more stringent regulation of social media and data sharing: a wider collaboration – and respect – between platforms, users and marketers. If anything positive is going to come from the Facebook data breach, perhaps it’s the opportunity for the digital marketing industry to go back to the drawing board, to return to old-school standards for transparency and accountability. 

In the meantime, Facebook has committed to maintaining “regular and open dialogue” with the ISBA, who said in a statement that they would be “keeping up the pressure”.  It will be interesting to see how Facebook continues to evolve under GDPR as key criteria in the legislation around Contractual Necessity, Consent and Legitimate Interest would have prevented the Cambridge Analytica scandal.


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