Data Privacy and Facebook: Using Duct Tape to Fix Broken Trust

Data Privacy Facebook

Social media is still a young medium; much of what social platform design teams have learned about unintended design outcomes, they learned through actual user history. They have also learned that it is very difficult to design at scale, and at the current speed of adoption, without making huge false assumptions about user behavior and outcomes. That is now coming to a boil for social media platforms, and the advertisers and businesses vested in social’s promise of one-to-one customer connection.

Unintended Outcomes

Margaret Gould Stewart, Facebook’s V.P. of Product Design, with previous stints at YouTube and Google, addressed the 2018 SXSW design track audience this year on the topic of tech design ethics. But while she gave a sincere and well-argued presentation explaining the platform’s challenges and steps they are taking to fix some obviously broken parts of the social media site, the experience of a typical Facebook user is that Facebook is still really about trying to compel us to interact, even if we don’t care to do so.

Weirdly, Facebook use actually increased after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and despite the trending Twitter hashtag #deleteFacebook. The scandal broke just as Facebook’s first-quarter numbers were totaled, so the second quarter may reveal a different story. Personally, I use Facebook way less than before the data-hacking mess, and I’ve used some of the tools Facebook pointed users to for managing data privacy. But I am frequently reminded of the old Silicon Valley adage: When the product is free, you are the product.

We are data generators. It is incidental to Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, et. al., that those generators are people, and the outcome of their interactions on these platforms is proving to be more problematic than beneficial. Facebook is not alone in this mess. Trolling and online abuse are rampant; fake news seems unstoppable; bots proliferate like dandelions in your front yard, except we can’t find a decent weed killer. What’s the solution? And how will that solution affect advertisers seeking a connection with customers?

Facebook’s Dilemma—Pay or Free?

Advertisers are right to be concerned—Facebook keeps altering organic platform tactics (sharing content), driving business pages inevitably to paid Facebook ads. Many business pages steered clear of paid ads out of doubts about Facebook’s claims of ad effectiveness. A 2014 Social@Ogilvy study found as organic reach plummeted, Facebook’s stock prices soared. Now, in the face of data privacy concerns, Facebook is being forced to examine how it allows targeted marketing, and how much may be too much for individual users—that desirable target audience advertisers seek.

Facebook recently did market research on the possibility of offering users a way to opt out of ad serving on the platform, per Bloomberg. The crisis in trust had the company wondering whether consumer sentiment against paying to use FB might have shifted. But while Facebook is hedging on executing this option, other surveys convey that just 23% of FB users say they would be willing to pay for an ad-free Facebook subscription. Aside from consumers’ attitudes cleaving to the free (ad-supported) model, Facebook likes its ad revenue ($11.8 billion in 1st quarter 2018) too much to do more than study subscription as a possible way around the data privacy mess.

As an alternative to paid subscriptions and ad-free socializing, Facebook is rolling out changes to the platform they claim will make Facebook work to “bring us together” as the social media site was originally intended to do. So far, the changes are living down to skeptics’ expectations.

FB shifted from news feed to “meaningful interactions.” Now, instead of news I want to see or page posts I deliberately follow, I see religious “chain” memes from an old high school friend, and a relative’s shares of right-wing fake news that I and other relatives have to flag as inaccurate or way out-of-date. Not making my stress go away, FB. There appears to be no algorithm to fix stupid (my new text abbreviation: #YCFS).

FB invited me to turn off apps I didn’t know were enabled. But I couldn’t do so selectively—I had to turn off ALL apps, or none. So I turned off all of them. Then a friend shared a Change.org petition I signed. I tried to share it, only to discover I’d have to turn the apps back on—ALL of them. I decided not to do that. Since then, FB has emailed me three times about the petition to try to guilt me into turning all apps back on. Seriously?

Facebook continually bugs me to add friends who are only remotely connected through other friends, or make more frequent updates to my page in order to see more posts in my feed. I have as many friends as I have; I don’t feel like adding a bunch of acquaintances or total strangers just to satisfy FB’s jones for more data and “more engagement” (translation, more time addictively interacting with content…).

Related: Facebook bugs business owners to claim a page. They do this with pop-up windows asking business owners to confirm they own a business… and thereby open a business Facebook page. The options are “yes” and “no,” with “yes” highlighted in blue as if it is the default. You must either agree that this is your business, and start a Facebook page you may not want; or say “no” and answer falsely. Psychologically, we want to say “yes.” Does this feel like you’re being scammed into doing something you may have already decided you didn’t want to do? I can’t imagine why. @DarkPatterns

 “The Year in Review” history of your feed items that show up every now and then to incite people to reshare old posts… ignoring that some old posts may be things we’d prefer to leave in the past, are hurtful to recall or are just no longer relevant. Grieving parents see happy videos of recently deceased children, pix of ex-spouses post-divorce, dates-turned-stalkers, etc. This is what happens when you create algorithms that don’t assess potential harm as well as potential benefits. Their goal was to get people to share, so others would like and reshare, so still more would comment and reshare… i.e., spend as much time on FB as could be compelled. One of these “edge cases” as FB calls them, spoke to FB designers, reminding them that they get to choose: “When you say edge case, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about.”

Trending News is gone. Except now it’s “Breaking News.” It remains to be seen whether FB’s adjusted algorithms can escape the faults of the old approach—“most-shared” over most accurate, for instance, or merely distracting news du jour vs. news that actually is important and worth concentrating on. Again, #YCFS. On the other hand, Facebook continues to tweak its algorithms to block “low-quality” newsfeed spamming by a roster of individuals who share posts identified as clickbait and misinformation. Their algorithms are far from perfect: Facebook blocked posts from small-town newspaper The Vindicator, which was sharing the entire Declaration of Independence a sentence at a time, and got tagged for hate-speech due to a Jeffersonian reference to “merciless Indian savages.”

The only marketing on Facebook that may work is now paid marketing. Good luck with just being social, since businesses have been relegated to a separate Pages feed that Facebook users must specifically select. I wonder what the data says about how often the average user clicks their page feed? If your clients don’t promote posts, they’re probably invisible to their customers.

Young users are fleeing Facebook in droves. Per new data from Pew Research Center, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” 85 percent of U.S. teens use YouTube; 72 percent use Instagram; 69 percent are on Snapchat; Facebook lags at 51 percent. Snapchat is the social site 35 percent of teens use most often; YouTube gets 32 percent, and Instagram 15 percent. Facebook? Just 10 percent of teens say FB is the site they use most often. The big reason for the shift is smart phones—95 percent of teens say they have their own smart phone or access to one, with 45 percent saying they are online almost constantly. Girls trend more to Snapchat, boys to YouTube. There are other interesting breakdowns based on ethnicity and income level. (Teens are defined for the survey as between ages 13 and 17.)

Facebook and Twitter are trying to make fake accounts more transparent. That means they’re introducing requirements for purchasing election ads, including revealing who bought the ads, and who has been targeted. Will they completely expose the bad actors and fake accounts that spammed biased messages across these platforms in 2016 in time for the 2018 mid-terms? Doubtful. Consider yourself warned.

Data Keeps Leaving…

Facebook’s latest privacy scandal broke in June: they allowed device makers, including Apple, Samsung, Amazon and Microsoft—60 companies in total, per the New York Times—to access user information without explicit permission through private data channels. This includes accessing friend data without their knowledge, and data points like religious affiliations, political leanings and events. This appears to breach a 2011 FTC decree requiring explicit user consent before overriding privacy settings. Facebook calls these companies “partners” rather than third-party vendors—meaning device makers may have collected data even from users who barred third-party access to their profiles. Facebook says these channels were available on older phones when Facebook was pushing to make their apps more widely available, not to most phones in current use; and says that very few device makers stored data on their company servers. They are “moving to shut down” these additional access channels.

Also, Facebook just revealed to Congress that among the thousands of application developers to which the platform permitted access to years of user data was Mail.ru, a Russian firm with close ties to the Kremlin. Even after Facebook ceased widespread data sharing in 2015, reported the New York Times, Mail.ru was among several companies granted a six-month extension. Mail.ru was founded by Russian businessman Yuri Milner, who received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Russian government to invest in Facebook and Twitter. Consider yourself warned.

Research and privacy consultant Ashkan Soltani, formerly the FTC’s chief technologist, told the NYT, “It’s like having door locks installed, only to find out that the locksmith also gave keys to all of his friends so they can come in and rifle through your stuff without having to ask you for permission.”

On the other hand, some people’s worries about data privacy can apparently be allayed with a little cash. Are advertisers willing to pay for access to social media data? How willing are advertisers to keep pouring funds into social promotion given how ugly the surrounding discourse has become? Are companies and brands willing and prepared to take part in that discourse, and suffer resultant trolling and #boycott pressures?

GDPR in the USA?

While the U.S. has no laws as stringent as the European GDPR [link June 2018 Magazine, Do We Need to Revive Design Ethics?], state-level legislation could soon become the model for national regulation. California averted a data privacy ballot question by passing GDPR-like privacy legislation at the end of June. Silicon Valley’s leading companies, including Google and Facebook, had opposed the ballot question, because it put rule-making power into the hands of voters. Lawmakers and tech companies see the bill as a starting point that will allow legislative improvements over time. (Translation: your data privacy pockets could still be picked…)

Users, businesses and advertisers alike will have to assess where all of this leaves us. Many people already are seeking the next new online channel. Will marketers, ad buyers, local businesses and online commerce sites follow the customers, hoping for another channel to exploit? Right now, businesses may feel Facebook has become a waste of time and energy, given Facebook’s changes to the page and news feeds, and the cost of promoted posts.

Maybe that is what we should be discussing right now—is it time to stop treating social media as a selling tool? Should advertisers and businesses shift back to tactics where advertising is accepted and even desirable? Have we pursued the golden goose only to have cooked our own? Online marketing, including social, is due for a reassessment. That could mean holding effectiveness and ROI conversations with clients as we move forward.

Think about what you will say if clients ask you for social media guidance. The social media reckoning isn’t coming soon. It’s here.


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