Revelations about the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica affair last month (March 2018) invoked a heated public discussion about data privacy and users’ control over their personal information in social media networks, particularly in the domain of Facebook. The central allegation in this affair is that personal data in social media was misused for the winning political presidential campaign of Donald Trump. It offers ‘juicy’ material for all those interested in American politics. But the importance of the affair goes much beyond that, because impact of the concerns it has raised radiates to the daily lives of millions of users-consumers socially active via the social media platform of Facebook; it could touch potentially a multitude of commercial marketing contexts (i.e., products and services) in addition to political marketing.
Having a user account as member of the social media network of Facebook is pay free, a boon hard to resist. Facebook surpassed in Q2 of 2017 the mark of two billion active monthly users, double a former record of one billion reached five years earlier (Statista). No monetary price requirement is explicitly submitted to users. Yet, users are subject to alternative prices, embedded in the activity on Facebook, implicit and less noticeable as a cost to bear.
Some users may realise that advertisements they receive and see is the ‘price’ they have to tolerate for not having to pay ‘in cash’ for socialising on Facebook. It is less of a burden if the content is informative and relevant to the user. What users are much less likely to realise is how personally related data (e.g., profile, posts and photos, other activity) is used to produce personally targeted advertising, and possibly in creating other forms of direct offerings or persuasive appeals to take action (e.g., a user receives an invitation from a brand, based on a post of his or her friend, about a product purchased or photographed). The recent affair led to exposing — in news reports and a testimony of CEO Mark Zuckerberg before Congress — not only the direct involvement of Facebook in advertising on its platform but furthermore how permissive it has been in allowing third-party apps to ‘borrow’ users’ information from Facebook.
According to reports on this affair, Psychologist Aleksandr Kogan developed with colleagues, as part of academic research, a model to deduce personality traits from behaviour of users on Facebook. Aside from his position at Cambridge University, Kogan started a company named Global Science Research (GSR) to advance commercial and political applications of the model. In 2013 he launched an app in Facebook, ‘this-is-your-digital-life’, in which Facebook users would answer a self-administered questionnaire on personality traits and some personal background. In addition, the GSR app prompted respondents to give consent to pull personal and behavioural data related to them from Facebook. Furthermore, at that time the app could get access to limited information on friends of respondents — a capability Facebook removed at least since 2015 (The Guardian , BBC News: Technology, 17 March 2018).
Cambridge Analytica (CA) contracted with GSR to use its model and data it collected. The app was able, according to initial estimates, to harvest data on as many as 50 million Facebook users; by April 2018 the estimate was updated by Facebook to reach 87 millions. It is unclear how many of these users were involved in the project of Trump’s campaign because CA was specifically interested for this project in eligible voters in the US; it is said that CA applied the model with data in other projects (e.g., pro-Brexit in the UK), and GSR made its own commercial applications with the app and model.
In simple terms, as can be learned from a more technical article in The Guardian , the model is constructed around three linkages:
(1) Personality traits (collected with the app) —> data on user behaviour in Facebook platform, mainly ‘likes’ given by each user (possibly additional background information was collected via the app and from the users’ profiles);
(2) Personality traits —> behaviour in the target area of interest — in the case of Trump’s campaign, past voting behaviour (CA associated geographical data on users with statistics from the US electoral registry).
Since model calibration was based on data from a subset of users who responded to the personality questionnaire, the final stage of prediction applied a linkage:
(3) Data on Facebook user behaviour ( —> predicted personality ) —> predicted voting intention or inclination (applied to the greater dataset of Facebook users-voters)
The Guardian  suggests that ‘just’ 32,000 American users responded to the personality-political questionnaire for Trump’s campaign (while at least two million users from 11 states were initially cross-referenced with voting behaviour). The BBC gives an estimate of as many as 265,000 users who responded to the questionnaire in the app, which corresponds to the larger pool of 87 million users-friends whose data was harvested.
A key advantage credited to the model is that it requires only data on ‘likes’ by users and does not have to use other detailed data from posts, personal messages, status updates, photos etc. (The Guardian ). However, the modelling concept raises some critical questions: (1) How many repeated ‘likes’ of a particular theme are required to infer a personality trait? (i.e., it should account for a stable pattern of behaviour in response to a theme or condition in different situations or contexts); (2) ‘Liking’ is frequently spurious and casual — ‘likes’ do not necessarily reflect thought-out agreement or strong identification with content or another person or group (e.g., ‘liking’ content on a page may not imply it personally applies to the user who likes it); (3) Since the app was allowed to collect only limited information on a user’s ‘friends’, how much of it could be truly relevant and sufficient for inferring the personality traits? On the other hand, for whatever traits that could be deduced, data analyst and whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who brought the affair out to the public, suggested that the project for Trump had picked-up on various sensitivities and weaknesses (‘demons’ in his words). Personalised messages were respectively devised to persuade or lure voters-users likely to favour Trump to vote for him. This is probably not the way users would want sensitive and private information about them to be utilised.
Consider users in need for help who follow and ‘like’ content of pages of support groups for bereaved families (e.g., of soldiers killed in service), combatting illnesses, or facing other types of hardship (e.g., economic or social distress): making use of such behaviour for commercial or political gain would be unethical and disrespectful.
Although the app of GSR may have properly received the consent of users to draw information about them from Facebook, it is argued that deception was committed on three counts: (a) The consent was awarded for academic use of data — users were not giving consent to participate in a political or commercial advertising campaign; (b) Data on associated ‘friends’, according to Facebook, has been allowed at the time only for the purpose of learning how to improve users’ experiences on the platform; and (c) GSR was not permitted at any time to sell and transfer such data to third-party partners. We are in the midst of a ‘blame game’ among Facebook, GSR and CA on the transfer of data between the parties and how it has been used in practice (e.g., to what extent the model of Kogan was actually used in the Trump’s campaign). It is a magnificent mess, but this is not the space to delve into its small details. The greater question is what lessons will be learned and what corrections will be made following the revelations.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, gave testimony at the US Congress in two sessions: a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees (10 April 2018) and before the House of Representatives Commerce and Energy Committee (11 April 2018). [Zuckerberg declined a call to appear in person before a parliamentary committee of the British House of Commons.] Key issues about the use of personal data on Facebook are reviewed henceforth in light of the opening statements and replies given by Zuckerberg to explain the policy and conduct of the company.
Most pointedly, Facebook is charged that despite receiving reports concerning GSR’s app and CA’s use of data in 2015, it failed to ensure in time that personal data in the hands of CA is deleted from their repositories and that users are warned about the infringement (before the 2016 US elections), and that it took at least two years for the social media company to confront GSR and CA more decisively. Zuckerberg answered in his defence that Cambridge Analytica had told them “they were not using the data and deleted it, we considered it a closed case”; he immediately added: “In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. We shouldn’t have taken their word for it”. This line of defence is acceptable when coming from an individual person acting privately. But Zuckerberg is not in that position: he is the head of a network of two billion users. Despite his candid admission of a mistake, this conduct is not becoming a company the size and influence of Facebook.
At the start of both hearing sessions Zuckerberg voluntarily and clearly took personal responsibility and apologized for mistakes made by Facebook while committing to take measures (some already done) to avoid such mistakes from being repeated. A very significant realization made by Zuckerberg in the House is him conceding: “We didn’t take a broad view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake” — it goes right to the heart of the problem in the approach of Facebook to personal data of its users-members. Privacy of personal data may not seem to be worth money to the company (i.e., vis-à-vis revenue coming from business clients or partners) but the whole network business apparatus of the company depends on its user base. Zuckerberg committed that Facebook under his leadership will never give priority to advertisers and developers over the protection of personal information of users. He will surely be followed on these words.
Zuckerberg argued that the advertising model of Facebook is misunderstood: “We do not sell data to advertisers”. According to his explanation, advertisers are asked to describe to Facebook the target groups they want to reach, Facebook traces them and then does the placement of advertising items. It is less clear who composes and designs the advertising items, which also needs to be based on knowledge of the target consumers-users. However, there seems to be even greater ambiguity and confusion in distinguishing between use of personal data in advertising by Facebook itself and access and use of such data by third-party apps hosted on Facebook, as well as distinguishing between types of data about users (e.g., profile, content posted, response to others’ content) that may be used for marketing actions.
Zuckerberg noted that the ideal of Facebook is to offer people around the world free access to the social network, which means it has to feature targeted advertising. He suggested in Senate there will always be a pay-free version of Facebook, yet refrained from saying when if ever there will be a paid advertising-clear version. It remained unclear from his testimony what information is exchanged with advertisers and how. Zuckerberg insisted that users have full control over their own information and how it is being used. He added that Facebook will not pass personal information to advertisers or other business partners, to avoid obvious breach of trust, but it will continue to use such information to the benefit of advertisers because that is how its business model works (NYTimes,com, 10 April 2018). It should be noted that whereas users can choose who is allowed to see information like posts and photos they upload for display, that does not seem to cover other types of information about their activity on the platform (e.g., ‘likes’, ‘shares’, ‘follow’ and ‘friend’ relations) and how it is used behind the scenes.
Many users would probably want to continue to benefit from being exempt of paying a monetary membership fee, but they can still be entitled to have some control over what adverts they value and which they reject. The smart systems used for targeted advertising could be less intelligent than they purport to be. Hence more feedback from users may help to assign them well-selected adverts that are of real interest, relevance and use to them, and thereof increase efficiency for advertisers.
At the same time, while Facebook may not sell information directly, the greater problem appears to be with the information it allows apps of third-party developers to collect about users without their awareness (or rather their attention). In a late wake-up call at the Senate, Zuckerberg said that the company is reviewing app owners who obtain a large amount of user data or use it improperly, and will act against them. Following Zuckerberg’s effort to go into details of the terms of service and to explain how advertising and apps work on Facebook, and especially how they differ, Issie Lapowsky reflects in the ‘Wired’: “As the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows, the public seems never to have realized just how much information they gave up to Facebook”. Zuckerberg emphasised that an app can get access to raw user data from Facebook only by permission, yet this standard, according to Lapowsky, is “potentially revelatory for most Facebook users” (“If Congress Doesn’t Understand Facebook, What Hope Do Its Users Have”, Wired, 10 April 2018).
There can be great importance to how an app asks for permission or consent of users to pull their personal data from Facebook, how clear and explicit it is presented so that users understand what they agree to. The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union, coming into effect within a month (May 2018), is specific on this matter: it requires explicit ‘opt-in’ consent for sensitive data and unambiguous consent for other data types. The request must be clear and intelligible, in plain language, separated from other matters, and include a statement of the purpose of data processing attached to consent. It is yet to be seen how well this ideal standard is implemented, and extended beyond the EU. Users are of course advised to read carefully such requests for permission to use their data in whatever platform or app they encounter them before they proceed. However, even if no information is concealed from users, they may not be adequately attentive to comprehend the request correctly. Consumers engaged in shopping often attend to only some prices, remember them inaccurately, and rely on a more general ‘feeling’ about the acceptable price range or its distribution. If applying the data of users for personalised marketing is a form of price expected from them to pay, a company taking this route should approach the data fairly just as with setting monetary prices, regardless of how well its customers are aware of the price.
The GDPR specifies personal data related to an individual to be protected if “that can be used to directly or indirectly identify the person”. This leaves room for interpretation of what types of data about a Facebook user are ‘personal’. If data is used and even transferred at an aggregate level of segments there is little risk of identifying individuals, but for personally targeted advertising or marketing one needs data at the individual level.
Zuckerberg agreed that some form of regulation over social media will be “inevitable ” but conditioned that “We need to be careful about the regulation we put in place” (Fortune.com, 11 April 2018). Democrat House Representative Gene Green posed a question about the GDPR which “gives EU citizens the right to opt out of the processing of their personal data for marketing purposes”. When Zuckerberg was asked “Will the same right be available to Facebook users in the United States?”, he replied “Let me follow-up with you on that” (The Guardian, 13 April 2018).
The willingness of Mark Zuckerberg to take responsibility for mistakes and apologise for them is commendable. It is regrettable, nevertheless, that Facebook under his leadership has not acted a few years earlier to correct those mistakes in its approach and conduct. Facebook should be ready to act in time on its responsibility to protect its users from harmful use of data personally related to them. It can be optimistic and trusting yet realistic and vigilant. Facebook will need to care more for the rights and interests of its users as it does for its other stakeholders in order to gain the continued trust of all.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)