Facebook: a crisis of confidence

May 13th, 2019

Much like volcano eruptions are preceded by earthquakes, there are usually early warning tremors with crises. So: let’s start with a little quiz!

Who elected Donald Trump? The American people? Wrong! He lost to Hilary Clinton by 3 million votes.

However, Donald won the College of Electors easily, with 304 votes to 227. How did he do that?

The answer is probably Facebook and the data held on its users. The saga of Cambridge Analytica and how Facebook data has been used to help politicians target key voters is well documented.

The former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, stated seven weeks before the Trump/Clinton election that one candidate had used his company’s techniques whilst as the other hadn’t. At the time he said, ‘it will be interesting to see how it all works out’. Indeed.

With the election over, Facebook’s problems were just starting. Up until then, we saw social media as a pleasant little toy: something to play with; used to keep in touch with friends and upload really bad photos.

Facebook is more than that: it’s a data goldmine, allowing for careful targeting of advertising, and – it would seem – political messages. Advertisers who are no longer needed contemplate the old adage: ‘I know that half of my advertising is wasted, but I don’t know which half.’ Now they know.

For politicians, this a dream come true! They can carefully target messages to crucial groups, such as swing voters in the key states. This means they do not waste resources on no-hopers. Is this what Donald’s team did?

If so, Facebook can claim credit for electing the president of the USA!

The crisis for Facebook started long before the 2017 US-elections: It started in 2014, when a scientist from Cambridge University developed an app called ‘this is your digital life’. This allowed hundreds of thousands of Facebook users to answer a questionnaire where the data would be used only for academic research.

The alarm bells should have resounded then.

If someone plays with your product and alters how it is used, then you should be very worried.

Listen out for those early warning signs!

Tom Curtin

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