Facebook and Cambridge Analytica – Where does it go next?

In the last few days, many people including the Financial Times have reached out to us remembering our article predicting this Facebook meltdown last June.  If you knew that, they ask, what happens next?

Here are some of this week’s predictions (usually foolish, always fun, and just occasionally accurate):

 

1. Cambridge Analytica will be blasted for a while yet, but slowly the focus will turn to Facebook

Several years ago, Facebook made changes to stop external apps scraping data. Most likely, this wasn’t driven by Facebook’s outrage at the potential misuse of data by third parties, but rather that third parties were scraping data Facebook owned. Better to protect your monopoly on data and sell it to political parties yourself!

The Cambridge Analytica story will continue to run (including on the Brexit referendum, see below), but in the coming months the ‘share of story’ of CA will go down, and the focus on Facebook’s own activities with political parties will increase.

 

2. The full extent of Facebook advertising by political parties will soon emerge

We already know that large sums of money have been spent on targeted Facebook ads by political parties, from the U.K. Conservatives, to Five Star, to AfD. Some campaigns spent almost 100% of their advertising budget on Facebook.

However, as former dark ads are forced into the light, it is the techniques used to link Facebook personal data with targeted political messages, that will emerge. It is the level of sophistication that will make political micro-targeting unacceptable in the future.

We will see how data points including brand preferences, where your friends live: city, hometown, village, or how frequently you interact with your high school alumni group are used to determine the best way to convince you Brexit is a good idea. We will see how they are used to determine the best way to deliver a political story over a 3-month period.

Investigative reporters, like those at the Guardian, Le Monde and El Pais, likely have deep dive examples from internal whistle-blowers to bring this point to life. Examples will emerge in the coming weeks, so watch this space.

 

3. The darkest ads

Some of the darkest ads are yet to emerge. When they do, they will show that it is their hidden, clandestine nature that makes this so unacceptable. Knowing that there were suppression ads to keep down the African-American vote for Clinton in 2016 is one thing – seeing them publicly exposed, and the targeted variations, will increase the outrage.

4. Facebook trying to cover its tracks about its government work.

The Intercept reported this week that, since last June, Facebook has hidden the part of its business that helps political parties micro-target.  Over the coming weeks, we expect to see not only more examples  of Facebook’s work for political parties, but also emerging evidence of their attempts to obscure it.

 

Facebook screenshots from June 2017, left, and March 2018, right, show that the social network removed its “Government and Politics” section. Source: The Intercept

Facebook screenshots from June 2017, left, and March 2018, right, show that the social network removed its “Government and Politics” section. Source: The Intercept

 

5. A skew to populism

The problem with Facebook political advertising is that it naturally skews towards populist parties.

Instinctively, we believe that the ability to micro-target in the shadows is more helpful to populist parties than to established parties who are closer to the centre. The kind of micro-targeting, particularly of dubious news content, helps parties whose messages deviate the most from the acceptable narratives in our societies. Things you could never say out loud on the street, you can say to a bunch of people most likely to agree with you, all sitting behind a screen. As leader of the Italian party Lega, Matteo Salvini, said after the recent Italian election, “God bless Facebook.” Research will emerge showing that Facebook advertising delivers a measurable skew to populists. Democracies can then decide what they do about this.

 

6. Brexit is next

We suspect that the Guardian and the Observer are deliberately dripfeeding information on this story, piece by piece, and that there will be more whistleblowing to come on how this micro-targeting helped to swing the Brexit referendum.

 

7. #NoFacebookFridays or #NoFacebookMondays

If we were Facebook, the #DeleteFacebook momentum would be worrying, but only to a certain extent. Although the impact of an individual deleted account is 100% lost business (ignoring WhatsApp and other assets for now), the volume impact is small. Facebook remains an important part of many of our lives. Many people are currently discussing their concerns with their friends – on Facebook.

NGO campaigns are best when they take into account ‘cost of change’ and find a lower barrier to activism: How to get a maximum number of people involved while maintaining effectiveness? If a day of the week was chosen to increase momentum and to encourage people to limit Facebook use, the volume impact on Facebook would be far higher. It is more likely that far more people would boycott Facebook for one day a week, delivering a percentage drop in revenue.

An interesting question is, which day? Do you choose the alliterative, catchy #NoFacebookFriday, or is its social utility as the day before the weekend too important? Which day of the week is easiest to give up? Maybe a Facebook poll would sort it?

 

Conclusions

In our view, in the coming year we must move quickly to understand the new influence of political advertising on elections. Only when a system for curtailing political ads is agreed, will Facebook be in the clear to continue its corporate work more peacefully.

These are our predictions, for what they’re worth. We hope it’s an interesting contribution to the debate. It’s what we do at HLC: we look at the interface of externalities, the commercial world, government and communications. We must sort out dark advertising skewing elections towards populists before we’re too far down the line.

Perhaps in years to come we’ll be grateful to Cambridge Analytica. They were so egregious, they helped uncover the quieter, but larger problem with Facebook itself.

 

For our article last June, we tried out targeted adverts for ourselves. Facebook approves of anti-migration ads, but seemingly anti-Facebook statements are a step too far for the advertising team…

For our article last June, we tried out targeted adverts for ourselves. Facebook approves of anti-migration ads, but seemingly anti-Facebook statements are a step too far for the advertising team…

 

Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is not to be anti-Facebook. We recognise the benefits of targeted adverts for a number of different sectors, and the wider benefits of the platform. What we are worried about is how effective Facebook political advertising is when it comes to election results. Our motivation comes from one desire: to take back control of our democracies.

Simon Levitt, Harwood Levitt Consulting

March 2018