The news this week is awash of social data transgressions. Stupendous examples of marketers-turned-diabolical-genius. While it's easy for uninformed policymakers to blame Facebook, culpability more aptly falls on rogue humans, surreptitiously harvesting data and ripping off Americans'  psychological mojo for money. Cambridge Analytica seems to be a data mercenary, willing to sell out social channels and users.

I'm sad. I've been using Facebook advertising since November 2007. It's by far the most advanced psychographic advertising channel on earth. We use that technology to accomplish tremendous good for businesses, causes and most any objective imaginable.

So, throwing Facebook under the bus today makes about as much sense as smashing all printing presses after propaganda leaflets were dropped on troops to further deplete moral during a bloody war. Facebook is simply the messenger. Of course, they can always do better at policing how data is used. Yet, the platform is subject to external human elements, some harboring unethical intent.

Here's a synopsis of Facebook's latest public tribulation--and how the fallout might affect you.

How Cambridge Analytica parsed the data

A professor created a seemingly innocuous personality app people accessed while on Facebook. Nearly 300,000 Americans took the bait. The app collected Facebook and personality test info about those users.

Collected data was used to create psychological models about individuals on what's called the OCEAN model (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism). The nearly 300,000 core OCEAN-profiled Americans also unwittingly gave up friends' identities, expanding the scope of intrusion exponentially.

While the OCEAN segments were not immediately transferable from the core group data, to their friends it's reasonable to assume birds of a feather flock together. After all, friends tend to enjoy like-minded things. 

The 50 million Facebook users ultimately affected by this data breach may have been arrived at simply by adding the initial 300,000 and their friends. It's also feasible Cambridge Analytica may have employed something called "lookalike" modeling, meaning the initial group plus their friends--plus lookalike individuals. Lookalike means Facebook looks at a seed group and finds other users who are very similar. I know from many years of ethical Facebook targeting that, deployed properly, lookalike audiences can be powerful.

For the nefarious scoundrels behind the Cambridge Analytica hack, it was all pretty easy. These Facebook audiences were additionally sorted to include or exclude countless other powerful targeting attributes, such as income, donations, political fringe attributes, guns, nationalism, pro-choice, pro-public education, union affiliation, coal mining--a seemingly endless list of hot button issues and the plethora of Facebook targeting commonly available.

Facebook's power is in the audience tools

Once the audiences were made, they could easily be used to target Facebook ads with customized messages. These ads can come from nearly any Facebook company page, which is easy to spoof.

Facebook users were subjected to ads that pushed on their buttons. As a result of the OCEAN layers, Cambridge Analytica played on users' motivating emotions to a somewhat greater extent than marketers' typical ability to ply people. No doubt the approach inflamed passions--and arguably drove votes.

Here are some critical factors to keep in mind:

  1. Any marketing channel can be turned against its users by rule breakers. Society won't eliminate cell phones because scam calls are a problem. Similarly, the government needs to go after bad actors, not smash printing presses.
  2. The vast majority of marketers promote good. Their noble outcomes are accomplished via Facebook Advertising. My agency, Aimclear, has helped market accessible travel for people with disabilities, recruit nurses to fill job openings, manage campaigns to limit second-hand smoke, or offer tasty desserts - literally thousands of marketing assignments steeped in goodness, values and honest commerce.
  3. There is no perfect solution, for the same reasons police departments can't totally end murder or graft. This is largely a game of whack-a-mole. The more "be an actual human with honest editorial" that Facebook (or any channel) requires, the more bad actors will co-opt dead people's profiles or whatever to proffer fake news.
  4. The government is naive. Listening to members of Congress wander around cable news programs trying to discuss the topic makes me, a psychographic marketing professional, sick to my stomach. It's clear at the highest level of American government, public understanding of the issue is weak and many years behind.

Both you and your business should continually demand appropriate safeguards for how data is gathered and used. However, it's equally important to truly understand how data is tapped for solid, ethical marketing and commerce. 

Ill-informed-but-well-intended policymakers eager to gain headlines positioning them as champions of the consumer could unwittingly do more harm than good. Facebook and social media overall provide an unprecedented two-way conduit between brands and consumers.

Published on: Mar 26, 2018