Last year Facebook measured 240 million monthly active users in the US, each of whom provided the tech giant with a trove personal information scattered through cookies, tracking pixels, status updates, GPS check-ins, and other widely employed data-harvesting methods. Of that 240 million, few probably stopped to think about where their data was being was being stored, who had access to it, and how it might be used. Now, that lack of transparency is causing major headaches at Facebook HQ.
Facebook was recently confronted with allegations that social media monitoring firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of 50 million of its users. Cambridge Analytica then used the data on behalf of the Trump campaign to create targeted political ads and media campaigns in the 2016 presidential election. Users, largely unaware that this data was being collected, let alone utilized, now contend their privacy was violated.
Facebook responded to the reports and denied a data breach, saying it gave permission to Aleksandr Kogan, a professor at the University of Cambridge, to gain information from users who took his personality test via an app: “thisisyourdigitallife.” Though Kogan was allowed to access the information, sharing it with Cambridge Analytica for commercial purposes crossed a line.
This latest scandal has sparked discussion over whether targeted political ads with a skeptical relationship with the truth have reached the point of interference with the principles of democracy. When Internet users see ads on social media, the ads are unique to their browsing history and tailored to their likes, dislikes, and a myriad of other data points collected by Facebook. The ad content is strategically positioned to persuade users, sometimes including biased political sentiments and misinformation that represents a user or group of users’ world view rather than objective fact. In this way Cambridge Analytica was able to influence users’ voting attitudes with personal data they had acquired.
The news of this data breach has reached lawmakers on a state and federal level. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy recently said her office will conduct an investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Last week, top Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee–Senators John Thune (R-SD), Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Jerry Moran (R-KS)–stated Mark Zuckerberg needed to testify. Additionally, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner (D-VA), tried to reinforce their Honest Ads Act legislation, which aims to hold tech companies to the same political ad transparency standards as radio, TV and print outlets.
The investigations, hearings, and legislation that come out of this data breach must be watched closely. Much of the internet is still seen as a digital ‘Wild West’ with few regulations and a lot of digital marketing is still largely misunderstood. As people begin to take a closer look at what goes on behind the newsfeed, the next couple of weeks will be pivotal for determining the future of social media and digital marketing as a whole.