Hashtag Blues – Facebook Feels The Heat From Users And  Advertisers But How Can It Regain Trust?

By Trevor Clawson

What a difference a hashtag can make. In the closing months of 2017, the #metoo hashtag became the focus of a global protest against sexual harassment in the workplace and played an important role, not only in highlighting the issue but also bringing about a degree of change. Fast forward to March 2018, the world’s largest and most talked about social media company must be hoping that the #deletefacebook hashtag will not have a similar impact.

The hashtag began to trend on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of allegations that user data harvested from 50 million Facebook users had been used improperly by Cambridge Analytica to underpin an online campaign in support of the presidential ambitions of Donald Trump. Facebook stood accused of knowing that its rules had been breached but failing to act to prevent misuse, The scandal has inevitably raised questions about Facebook’s commitment – or the lack of it – to protect the privacy of its five billion users. Hence the #deletefacebook hashtag and widespread reports that users were preparing to desert the platform in droves, with momentum for the impromptu campaign growing over the weekend.

Delete Facebook’s Poster Child.

Step forward Elon Musk, the US tech entrepreneur behind the Tesla electric car and the SpaceX rocket company. While Musk is undoubtedly an evangelist for the power of technology to benefit humanity, he has also expressed deep misgivings about the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence. And at the weekend, he became the poster child for the #deletefacebook movement. Having posted a number of critical tweets about the social media company,  he was challenged as to why Tesla and SpaceX both had Facebook pages. Shortly afterwards those pages disappeared. He wasn’t alone within the tech industry. A few days earlier Whatsapp Founder Brian Acton said he was deleting his account.

At this stage, it’s impossible to say how many ordinary mortals will follow suit, but according to Charlotte McMillan, founder of digital scrapbook, Storychest there is evidence that some users are starting to jump ship.

“Data from Google Trends reveals that consumers are increasingly looking for alternatives to Facebook,” she says. “But there is also evidence of the change of opinion within social media, where people are now posting leaving messages.”

Some of them may be in for a shock.

Cutting The Ties

Facebook Under Fire from Users and Advertisers. How can Trust be Regained?

Deleting a Facebook account isn’t necessarily an easy process. Anyone seeking to cut all ties with the platform will first be encouraged to ‘deactivate’  rather than ‘delete’ the account in question, but even if the user opts for the nuclear option there is a two week cooling off period, during which the account will be restored if there is any subsequent activity. And that activity could take the form of the user firing up a third party app, such as Spotify, which is linked to Facebook.

Those who persevere are invited to download a zip file, which provides a breakdown of data already collected by Facebook and over the weekend former users began to tweet about the scale and scope of information stored by the platform.,

As one former user – Mat Johnson tweeted.

The logs reveal that Facebook was not only tracking public activity – likes, comments, etc – but also storing information that users might have considered personal,  such as calls, SMS messages, address and address book contacts.

Arguably this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Rich Wheeless, CEO of  Enrich Media Group points out, Facebook users know what they are signing up for.

“This is the bread and butter of how Facebook and Google make money,” he says. “I mean, let’s be real, they are providing you with a free service so why would one think they are in the business of not making money? Both of these companies are well known for making their money through advertising.”

But what may shock many was the sheer scope and scale of the information on file.

Advertisers Pull Back

Meanwhile, advertisers have also been expressing misgivings, with some  – including tech company Mozilla, banking group Commerzbank and speaker maker, Sonos –   taking their content off the platform, if only on a temporary basis.

The UK, advertising trade body ISBA has held talks with Facebook and according to a statement issued by Director General Phil Smith the company has given assurances that it will clean up its act. Measures promised to British advertisers – and presumably to those elsewhere in the world – including the investigation of apps that harvested large amounts of data prior to new rules introduced in 2014,  a commitment to inform users about data misuse, and measures to prevent unused apps from continuing to collect data.

But as Phil Smith Acknowledged, Facebook is a long way from getting its house in order.

“It is clear from our meeting today that this is a priority for Facebook and that they now have a lot of work to do as they commence and conduct their forensic audit,” he said.

A Tipping Point

From one perspective, you could argue that Facebook will have no problem in weathering the storm. Any user who considers quitting the platform will probably end up doing a certain amount of soul-searching. Is it really a good idea to leave a platform that offers easy connectivity with friends – and for businesses a means to talk to customers – because of data concerns.

Facebook Under Fire from Users and Advertisers. How can Trust be Regained?

Meanwhile, advertisers may well be concerned about the privacy issues, but at the same time, it is the ability to target ads precisely that is at the heart of Facebook’s appeal.

But from another angle, this could be a tipping point. According to research by eMarketer, 700,000 fewer 12-24-year-olds will use the platform in 2018 when compared to the previous year. When the research was published, it was not data privacy concerns that were driving them away. Instead, they were switching to platforms they considered cooler.

If eMarketers predictions prove correct, then over 55s will emerge as the second largest demographic – an age group that could well be much more concerned about data privacy than their younger counterparts.

And according to David Northmore, VP EMEA at software company Marklogic (which powers Obamacare in the US) this is not a problem that Facebook can simply shrug off.  “

It was not only a policy breach but a breach of trust,” he says.

And as Northmore sees it, if Facebook and other companies are to retain the trust of users and customers they must be more proactive.

“Data governance means applying policy to data—knowing and controlling what data you have, where it sits, who touches it, who changes it and when,” he says.  “Governance is an increasing challenge for companies, organizations and even governments as more and more data is collected.” 

User Regulation

Facebook stands accused of being slow to act on privacy. But if significant numbers of people delete their accounts and others express more concern about privacy and transparency issues, then the platform may be forced tighten its rules, not because of regulators but in response to public pressure.

Rich Wheeless suggests some actions that could be taken.

“The are two ways to fix this: better explanations to the consumer before sign up (which would lead to fewer people signing up now they are understanding how their data is used), and the second one, which is much more likely, is that there is a premium version of these versions where one pays a quid a month to be able to opt out of their data being collected and used.”

Would users pay for Facebook that didn’t harvest their data? Would investors like the idea of a sign-up process that deterred some potential users. Or, as Wheeless also suggests, would the answer lie in popups that allowed users to opt out of some aspects of data collection. It’s all to play for.