Responsible Social Media Strategy: Is Facebook's Data Collection OK?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in Washington, D.C., today to address a growing list of concerns that have come up regarding data collection methods and security practice on Facebook. Here is Zuckerberg's full testimony.

As advertisers, we spend a lot of time on Facebook. Building ad campaigns, designing social media strategy, targeting potential consumers, and implementing tracking codes are daily activities for our Digital Marketing team, as they are for any digital marketing agency in 2018. But the ubiquity of Facebook advertising, especially within an agency or marketing department, can make it easy to forget just how powerful the platform’s targeting options are. If advertisers are ignoring the specificity of the levers we pull, then we’re even less likely to go one step further and ask, “What data points is Facebook basing this targeting on?”

Let’s take a look at Zuckerberg’s testimony and what changes it might presage for the platform.

Zuckerberg starts by stating, "Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company." I think it's important to remember this whenever we're working on Facebook. Zuckerberg really believes this (see his note from Feb. 2017 for a detailed breakdown) and he sees Facebook as a positive set of tools to build, connect, and empower communities to do good in the world. At least, he did until recently.

Zuckerberg's testimony reads like an admission of naivete: "For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring." However, the recent string of crises that Facebook has endured seems to have wisened him up a bit:

"But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here."

Now, we're a creative agency, not a media outlet. I'm not a reporter, and while I've been working in Facebook for years I've hardly been tracking its CEO's every move. There's plenty of support for the theory that Zuckerberg is more self-serving than he appears. For the sake of this blog post, the takeaway is this: Facebook screwed up, they know it, and they’re doing some things about it.

Here are some changes, as described by Zuckerberg, that we need to be aware of as advertisers:

    • "We’re removing developers’ access to your data if you haven’t used their app in three months."
    • "Two weeks ago, we found out that a feature that lets you look someone up by their phone number and email was abused. This feature is useful in cases where people have the same name, but it was abused to link people’s public Facebook information to a phone number they already had. When we found out about the abuse, we shut this feature down."
    • "From now on, every advertiser who wants to run political or issue ads will need to be authorized. To get authorized, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location."
    • "For even greater political ads transparency, we have also built a tool that lets anyone see all of the ads a page is running."
      1. It remains to be seen if this will only apply to political advertisers.
    • "We will also require people who manage large pages to be verified as well. This will make it much harder for people to run pages using fake accounts, or to grow virally and spread misinformation or divisive content that way."
    • "Our best estimate is that approximately 126 million people may have been served content from a Facebook Page associated with the IRA at some point during that period. On Instagram, where our data on reach is not as complete, we found about 120,000 pieces of content, and estimate that an additional 20 million people were likely served it. Over the same period, the IRA also spent approximately $100,000 on more than 3,000 ads on 5 Facebook and Instagram, which were seen by an estimated 11 million people in the United States"
      1. This jumped out to me as the most interesting point in the whole testimony: 93% of the reach that the IRA garnered in the lead up to the election was organic. That sound you can hear is underappreciated community managers and content creators collectively dropping the mic.

There is plenty in the testimony that can inform your strategies going forward. But beyond optimization tactics and platform updates, what should we, as advertisers, take away from Zuckerberg's testimony and the tribulations of Facebook recently?

Facebook is, as described by to Nick Thompson, editor of Wired Magazine, "one of the most effective advertising mechanisms that has ever been built by mankind." And that's certainly true, because it allows us to know some pretty personal things about our potential customers. Think about some of the ways that we can target our ad campaigns on the platform:

    • Whether or not a user is college educated
    • A user’s proximity to your location
    • A user’s recent purchasing history
    • Users with an upcoming anniversary
    • Users who are new parents
    • Users who are politically "Very Liberal" or "Very Conservative”

Facebook’s business model is to gather as much data about its users as it can, and then sell it. While Zuckerberg’s mission may or may not be more humanitarian, the business model to get him there is clear and highly, highly, effective. It is focused on harvesting this type of personal data, and as advertisers we’re writing the checks. The more data available, the better ads perform. The better ads perform, the more advertising dollars get allocated to Facebook. For those keeping score at home, that puts advertisers firmly on the team of, “People Who Should Reflect On Their Actions.”

In his testimony, Zuckerberg referenced the balancing act between security and profit: "I’ve directed our teams to invest so much in security — on top of the other investments we’re making — that it will significantly impact our profitability going forward. But I want to be clear about what our priority is: protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits."

Zuckerberg says Facebook will work with Congress to fix these issues, but won't wait for legislation to act. He then lays out a list of things Facebook is doing now, unilaterally, to address problems that have been brought to light over the last 18 months. And as advertisers, we can take the same approach: we don't have to wait for Facebook to remove targeting criteria that makes us feel like we’re invading people’s privacy. We can just stop using those criteria.

There is an often-quoted adage about free apps like Facebook: "If you're not paying, you're the product." While Zuckerberg and Congress can debate that fact, another way we should be thinking about this issue is: If you are paying, they're making it for you.

Jack Callahan

Account Strategist