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Lessons learned from Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook Data

Several clients have asked us about the Cambridge Analytica use of data from Facebook and how this might impact their use of the platform, for both personal or professional purposes. We’ve been following the story and wanted to share our viewpoint, along with a couple of helpful resources.

Quick overview of what happened:

Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer from Cambridge, started a company called Global Science Research after the university wouldn’t allow him to use Facebook data for commercial research. Global Science Research paid individuals to complete a survey that said it would download basic information from the user’s Facebook profile about their basic demographics and interests, their “likes” and photos, from their profiles as well as their friends. The survey participants were also told it was for academic use only. Cambridge Analytica then gained access to the data from Global Science Research. This is in breach of Facebook’s terms of use. Users consent to allowing this data to be collected when they sign up for Facebook but only for academic purposes. It is alleged that Cambridge Analytica used this data to promote candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The firm has denied these allegations.

What can we do now?

Find out if your data was taken.

You might be wondering if your own data was compromised. Facebook just released a tool that tells you if your data was sent to Cambridge Analytica. If it was, the tool should tell you how the company got your data and what they did with it. If it wasn’t used, you can still take this opportunity to tighten up your privacy settings and better understand the apps you’re using.

Rethink what privacy means and how you use Facebook personally.

Think twice about allowing Facebook to gain access to your information through various apps. In the case of the Cambridge Analytica data, individuals being paid to complete the survey might not have realized they had authorized access to their personal Facebook profiles and those of their friends. Facebook is cracking down on abuse of their platform and offers guidance to users on how their data will be better protected in the future.

As marketers, we use Facebook for business purposes, including helping our clients better target their advertising. Our view: it’s up to each of us personally to recognize that Facebook is an advertiser driven platform. Yes, your likes and interests are used by businesses to better target their advertising. It’s up to you to restrict the information you make available on any online platform. However, we also believe Facebook or any other platform should be forthcoming about how they will use the information you publicly share. Take the time to educate yourself as best you can stay informed about platform changes. Think carefully about any paid surveys or platform apps that request access to data.

Consider the business implications.

Our view: businesses shouldn’t panic just yet. There are a few companies leaving Facebook in light of these events. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is leaving Facebook, stating that he feels the use of personal information to help inform advertisers is unethical.

In our industry, some view businesses divorcing Facebook as largely an opportunistic public relations tactic. This is due to the fact that personal profiles were affected, not business pages. Consider that any data available on a business Facebook page is informational.

We think it’s premature for companies to move off the platform right now, but we do think it is an opportunity for everyone to rethink what they are sharing on these platforms. This will probably serve as a wakeup call for Facebook, and will be an impetus for changes to make sure this does not happen again.

Use it as a primer on crisis communications do’s and don’ts.

Our view, from a PR perspective, Mark Zuckerberg has been criticized for not addressing the situation fast enough. In the world of crisis communications, a delayed response usually means that the organization is reacting to the crisis, rather than getting out in front of it as quickly and transparently as possible. If your business lacks a basic crisis communications plan, this is a ideal time to pull leadership together discuss how you would react to a crisis. The Public Relations Society of America wrote this review of Facebook’s actions, according to the PRSA Code of Ethics. It’s a helpful reminder for any organization on how to build trust in the face of a crisis.


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