Facebook is a merely a “conduit” and it’s “hard to say” that the social media platform is solely to blame for the data breach that saw 87 million accounts exposed to Cambridge Analytica. That’s the stance of Ken Wisnefski, founder, and CEO of digital marketing agency WebiMax, and he’s withholding judgment until someone can show him that Facebook willingly offered up this data that was eventually used as campaign subterfuge to steer voters during the 2016 presidential run.
Wisnefski says “it wouldn’t make sense” for Facebook to knowingly release such a massive amount of data. For its part, Cambridge Analytica says it hired a research firm to scrape it up and then went off and put it to use. With CEO Mark Zuckerberg now finished with two days of testimony before legislators on Capitol Hill, Wisnefski weighs in on the future of Facebook, modern advertising tactics and how online privacy has finally made it front and center.
1) First and foremost, relaxed oversight or truly nefarious motives? Cambridge Analytica claims in an April 9 press release that it “legally obtained” Facebook account data from a research company in much the same way “hundreds of data firms” have done in the past. For its part, Facebook has denied it was complicit in this “breach of trust.” Who is really at fault here?
Answer: According to Zuckerberg, he felt his data was breached in some way and in reality, there would be no way for someone to get all of that data unless they illegally accessed it or Facebook provided it. That will continue to be the core question: Did Facebook provide the data or was it obtained illegally? Until we know that answer, it’s hard to say Facebook is really at blame.
2) The data obtained by Cambridge Analytica was eventually put to use by the Trump presidential campaign (among others) for digital advertising purposes. There’s also plenty of talk of how Russian entities used Facebook to spread polarizing political content ahead of the 2016 election. The data also provided a way to learn more about the electorate and possibly sway those reached with targeted images and articles. At its core, using “psychographic modeling techniques” is what drives all forms of advertising. What’s the difference here?
A: While television marketing is not what it used to be, you can see a difference in who advertises during a football game compared to who advertises during a daytime soap opera. The notion of identifying an audience by what their perceived likes are is nothing new. The aspect that Facebook provides is it gathers far more data than just the fact you like a certain TV show; it has deeper insights into your behavior which can, in theory, allow an opportunity to target people based on their perceived political bias. Nothing has really changed in the marketing aspect but the fact Facebook has that much data on you, the marketers can be that much smarter.
3) Are we going to learn anything from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearings? If you could ask him anything, what would it be? What’s one thing you want to hear or learn from these proceedings?
A: The big question is if he knowingly released this level of data. While I could ask this question, I am not certain I would ever get a true response but I will say this: The level of data that Facebook was leveraged for is core to its ad-serving unit. While that data lives behind the scenes for those who advertise on Facebook, I do find it hard to believe that this level of insight and data would be willingly provided to a third party. That’s the key asset that Facebook possesses and one of the reasons their ad platform has grown so much. To simply hand it off? It wouldn’t make sense.
4) When viewed as a “data breach,” obtaining user data from 87 million Facebook profiles is a pretty big event. Zuckerberg said Tuesday that beefed-up security is on the horizon and it’s going to cost quite a bit to achieve that. Is the cat already out of the bag, so to speak? Do you think a Facebook with more rules and regulations will still appeal to users and advertisers?
A: From a user perspective, I don’t expect to see all that much of a change.
5) Companies such as Pep Boys, Mozilla and Sonos pulled their ads from Facebook once the scandal came to light. Do you see this as an emotionally-charged reactionary move or a general display of corporate values?
A: This is very irrational. In reality, it’s highly unlikely Facebook willingly did anything wrong. This isn’t a scenario where Facebook is necessarily the bad guy. They are more the conduit by which this information is stored. With that said, advertisers could feel that consumers will be “turned off” by Facebook advertising and they are going to move budgets to other platforms. I would not be so quick to make that sort of decision.
6) Is Facebook a monopoly? Some senators suggested that on Tuesday and with earnings of $40 billion in 2017, the lion’s share came from companies purchasing the digital real estate for advertisements. Is it so bad that a single social media platform is home to “friends” we know both in real life and only online?
A: Facebook isn’t a monopoly -- they have just done the best job of growing their platform and keeping their relevancy. That might change over time, but they shouldn’t be treated as a monopoly for doing a great job.
7) The filtering of “fake news” and hate speech is also on Facebook’s agenda. Too little too late, squashing of free speech or an admirable effort to provide a service to the public?
A: Fake news is a hard topic. It’s hard to determine what is fake news. With some much “news” out there, it’s hard to validate real from fake. The notion that Facebook is shutting down sites that consistently promote false information is a good thing but with more news sources, everyone is looking to be the one who breaks the story and in some cases, that information is inaccurate. I think back to the infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Imagine that today across social media? It would be catastrophic!
8) Speaking of the general public, are you encouraged by the fact that people are finally paying attention to the pilfering of information we put online? Does this event finally put a face on all those instances where people wondered how advertisements for products they’d previously checked out started popping up elsewhere and everywhere?
A: We are constantly being marketed to: Billboards, TV ads, radio commercials. I think people are used to the level of marketing and it’s how sites like Facebook can put out a good product by leveraging their ad revenue.
9) Are we watching the end of Facebook-- with Instagram (another Zuckerberg-back property) as the heir apparent? Will these hearings usher a transformation into a more user-conscious platform or is this bound to be a dog-and-pony show until the end?
A: Facebook offers aspects Instagram doesn’t. Facebook has already slowed in growth with younger users. It will still have value but nowadays, there will be a shelf life for all platforms. Is Instagram the heir apparent? Probably not but what is… that’s the next big idea that someone is working on as we speak.
10) Knowing what we do now about how information we voluntarily add to the Internet can be used, will you be changing any of your personal browsing habits?
A: I am not active on social media platforms at all, which people find hard to believe because of my business and my level of knowledge on the topic. I have always been more of a private person and never felt the need to take pictures of my meals at restaurants to post them or finding the perfect selfie. So for me, there isn’t much to change. For others, I think the fact someone is able to make up assumptions about you based on your likes and habits, it will make people evolve their habits.