After what is arguably the most torrid week in Facebook’s 14-year history, question marks surrounding its complicity in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with advertisers joining lawmakers and privacy experts by using the furor as a rod to beat the social network’s back.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence five days into the controversy surrounding the Cambridge Analytica data breach where he revealed additional measures to its earlier curbs on third parties accessing its personal data.
“While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today, that doesn't change what happened in the past,” he wrote in a blog post.
“We will learn from this experience to secure our platform further and make our community safer for everyone going forward.”
This statement topped a week when it was reported by several media outfits that ‘behavioral change’ company Cambridge Analytica, exploited earlier Facebook data vulnerabilities – which have since been plugged – and then used it to influence the 2016 US Presidential election on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign.
The subsequent furor in the days since saw Cambridge Analytica suspended from the social network as well as Facebook’s stock price tumble, an incident that wiped more than $50bn off the company’s value in a single day.
Adding fuel to the fire leading politicians have also called on the Facebook founder to answer questions on its data protection policies with the likelihood of Mark Zuckerberg answering questions in front of US and UK lawmakers a likely occurrence in the near future.
The rising tide of #DeleteFacebook
Public opinion too seemed to be turning against the social network, sentiment underlined by WhatsApp cofounder Brian Action, who sold his company to Facebook for $19bn in 2014, adding his voice to the #DeleteFacebook campaign.
A measure of the popularity of the sentiment came from Hitwise, which showed that the number of searches on variations of the term “delete Facebook” increased 423% in the days after the scandal emerged.
All of this emerged as Advertising Week Europe was poised to kick off in an echo of the brand safety furor that engulfed Facebook’s ‘duopoly bedmate’ Google after an exposé by The Times spurred similar buried headlines.
As the curtain falls on the latest edition of Advertising Week, advertisers too are adding their voices to the debate, with Isba – the self-proclaimed ‘voice of British advertisers’ – describing the matter as “deeply disturbing” in a statement.
In subsequent interviews with mainstream media conducted after the Zuckerberg statement, Phil Smith, director general of ISBA, took a much harder line.
"What we are hearing at ISBA is that advertisers are concerned. When we meet with Facebook tomorrow we want to understand the scope of the inquiry Mark Zuckerberg announced yesterday,” he told The Times of London.
"We want reassurances for our members that it will get to the bottom of the issues and any implications for the public and for advertisers."
Digital marketers are now facing internal pressure.
Despite multiple controversies, surrounding media spend on the social network, as well as its ‘duopoly bedmate’ Google, such platforms are the most popular outlets for advertisers to spend their media budgets – albeit their combined market share is slipping.
Speaking on condition of anonymity on the sidelines of Advertising Week Europe, one senior digitally-focused brand-side marketer speaking detailed the angst felt among advertisers, including the questions their digital advocates now have to answer.
The source spoke of having to answer “tough” internal questions about the scandal, adding that company leadership was wary of any negative associations.
“Marketers have spent years begging Facebook to give them user data for their own purposes, and moaned about not being able to get access to it,” the source said.
The source went on to say that because the Cambridge Analytica scandal “doesn’t strictly affect the advertising product” as much as YouTube’s brand safety issues, things are “much less black and white.”
However, C-suite executives are now having a lot a high brow conversation around the ethics and morals of this “murky ground” according to the source.
“There is a legitimate concern that [advertising on] Facebook [could carry] a potential future data protection/GDPR risk etc but everything I’ve seen suggests Facebook actually has fairly tight policies on that and this [has exploited] an old loophole,” he added.
US advertisers mull their stance
The Drum contacted Isba’s US counterpart the ANA for comment, and while a spokesperson declined to comment, it is understood the matter is being debated internally.
Meanwhile, Mozilla, the not-for-profit internet organization behind the Firefox web browser, hasn’t hesitated in its decision to “press pause on Facebook advertising.”
In a blog post describing the move, Mozilla’s Denelle Dixon spoke of how it hoped the social network would improve its privacy settings, and how it was encouraged by Zuckerberg’s latest statement, but in the meantime it would not continue to spend there.
“This news caused us to take a closer look at Facebook’s current default privacy settings given that we support the platform with our advertising dollars,” reads the post.
“While we believe there is still more to learn, we found that its current default settings leave access open to a lot of data – particularly with respect to settings for third-party apps.
Increased diligence about Facebook data is now a near certainty
In an emailed statement to The Drum, influential analyst Brian Wieser from Pivotal Research expressed his belief that an advertiser exodus from Facebook, but he did this was unlikely to be the end of its woes on the privacy front.
“I do think this will cause more scrutiny on many fronts – advertisers who have bought Facebook – because Facebook data says it works – [will now be] asking whether it’s true,” he wrote.
This could lead to advertisers looking to reduce their reliance on Facebook’s Custom Audiences data segments because of enhanced fear of aggressive enforcement – a likelihood as indicated by the upcoming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) – which could have the effect of causing revenue growth to decelerate (at least in Europe), according to Wieser.
This is a sentiment backed by Isba’s statement issued this week, it read: “ISBA welcomes the forthcoming introduction of GDPR, which strengthens the law on data protection and privacy for all individuals in the European Union.”
Wayne Blodwell, chief executive of The Programmatic Advisory, a consultancy that advises brands on third-party partnerships, echoes this sentiment.
“GDPR has upped the game for brands and agencies to some extent, there’s definitely lots to do,” he said, adding that one certainty is that brands will undoubtedly be more diligent when it comes to such partnerships in the wake of this scandal.
Facebook is certainly going to have to work harder than it has ever done before to tag Ian the trust of its user base, but few would count them out from succeeding Long-term.