With all due respect to the excellent investigative journalism that exposed the large-scale data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica – it will not bring down Facebook.
Commentators were quick to point to share price volatility and hashtag protests as indicators of doom. The social network has indeed been slow to ventilate the stench surrounding its relationship to the London-based consultancy. For many the apology by Mark Zuckerberg was too little too late. But the very fact the website’s founder has been so mealy-mouthed with his response demonstrates a real belief in the invincibility of the Facebook brand. He’s right. Advertisers may grumble but their threats of withdrawing budget are as virtuous as they are hollow. With over $9 billion spent on Facebook in the last quarter advertisers are far too committed to turn back. As much a traditional media may resent it, in an age where social is king Facebook has the power over distribution.
The entanglement of facebook in our daily lives is as strong as ever. For millennials who have grown up with the platform the question of deleting their account is the equivalent to Neo choosing between red and blue pills. Facebook is a brand like no other and it is subject to different rules. This does not mean, however, Zuckerberg cannot be unplugged from the matrix. For all their talk of social value and sharing the riches tech companies are brutal; if Zuckerberg doesn’t follow up on his vague promises of change a Steve Jobs sacking scenario will be on the cards. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg -who can claim clean hands over the deal- has kept her head down, perhaps with a mind to take control of the reins should investors continue to rattle the cage.
Facebook will not be toppled but surely the dark world of data harvesting -and its nefarious influence of the democratic process- has been blown open? Here I’d also urge caution. To overplay the danger posed by Cambridge Analytica is to buy into its myths. The Channel 4 undercover investigation showed the true face of the company: behind the trendy veneer of behavioural insights and targeted messaging algorithms is a shady network of spooks and fixers playing dirty tricks to manipulate public opinion. Or did it just show two desperate marketing suits who’d been around the block and were massively overselling their capabilities and access to win business? Where the media seem to think they’ve found a Bond villain in Analytica CEO Alexander Nix – great name- his LinkedIn reads more like the profile of a mid-career sales exec with fantasies of global espionage. In the world of consultancy and PR such figures are common. The field is competitive and unless you’re David Axelrod the fees for advising on elections barely cover the cost of a business class flight to Addis Ababa. If Channel 4 want more revelatory content for their undercover team there are plenty of less discrete firms out there promising similar services. Most of it will be public school boy horseshit.
Analytica were different to other consultancies due only to the treasure trove of data mined by an app designed by the academic psychologist Aleksandr Kogan. The use of the tool -which asked volunteers to answer a series of questions and invited them to opt in to share their Facebook likes (and, inadvertently, those of their friends)- is nowhere near as radical as it has been made out to be, the principals of which date back in basic psychometric testing in the 19th century. Details of how exactly this data was used in Analytica’s work for the Trump campaign have yet to emerge. Knowing whether a user likes the Colbert Report and Niki Minaj or dislikes fishing and Clint Eastwood movies can hone a message. Yet there is little evidence to suggest it is any more effective than traditional media at actually persuading people to switch allegiances or to get out and vote.
And herein lies the rub. For all the outcry over Facebook’s role in Trump’s victory there has been little self-examination by the US media of its role in giving the then-candidate’s message a prominent platform. During the primary campaign Trump received over $2 billion worth of free coverage- far beyond what any of his rivals were able to garner. Despite being derided by many commenters -left and right- one study has shown that Hilary Clinton still received the most negative coverage of the election- largely due to the media’s regurgitation of the Trump team’s catchy slogans. While it is right that the important role of social media is scrutinised it is tempting to wonder if there’s not a bit of guilty conscience being shown by the liberal media that they didn’t do enough. Alas, deleting Facebook is not the same thing as deleting Trump.