Facebook data mining saga smashes communications conventions


Although it takes time for a trend to become clear, sometimes events are so overwhelming, so bizarre, it’s as though we are sleep walking into a game changing reality.

This is about data. About gossip, rumour and lies versus “truth” and “facts” – words whose very meaning have been distorted.

In times of chaos and crisis, communicators used to have a reliable bag of tools for advising clients. “Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it fast,” served us well. Apologise sincerely if you are wrong. Talk about the people who have been hurt. And don’t do it like you have been robotically trained.

The application of these tools (and training) were highly valued. Their effectiveness relied on a consensus forming about the “truth” of a situation. But, the game has changed, as demonstrated by the complex case of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, which has seen US$60 billion wiped off the value of Facebook shares.

Aspects of this story will eventually make it to the communications text books because they are so opposed to the norms of our game. Take two of the men at the centre, Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge psychologist accused of misusing data from 50 million users, and Mark Zuckerberg. Kogan claimed to know nothing, saying he had been made a scapegoat by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and feeling sorry for all and sundry. He was all “hey gosh, what happened? Everyone knows I am a simple, goofy sort of guy”.

Meanwhile Zuckerberg spent four days in purdah after the story broke and the share crash started. He crawled out, smiling disarmingly and looking like an intern (the shtick he was probably told to adopt) and talked as if all this was a bit of a surprise to him.

One of the wider ramifications of this sordid story is that Zuckerberg and those interviewing him see this as an American problem – how to ensure their values can be maintained in a world of national propaganda, terrorism and hate speech. They don’t seem to have thought that one man’s hate speech is another man’s world view – that billions of people don’t see the world through an American prism. The 33 year-old Zuckerberg seriously thinks he can control Facebook content so as not to offend people living in more than 200 countries.

Challenges abound in advising someone like Zuckerberg. First, the computer nerd is unlikely to know much about the real world, outside his first brilliant idea. Second, he is likely to be surrounded by acolytes absent of independent and contrarian views.

It easy to conclude that not only is there so much more muck to be raked here, politicians everywhere are clueless as to how to get on top of it. Central to the future problem is that Facebook has managed to avoid being treated, in law, as a publisher, which common sense says it always was. Aided and abetted by a desperate advertising industry, Facebook takes billions in ad revenue from marketing departments who have bought into metrics even more dodgy than the “opportunities to see” methodology that propped up their industry since Mad Men.

There is a growing threat of action among those who spend their companies’ money on advertising. Will they match their bluster by withdrawing their ads from Facebook? The traditional print, TV and radio bosses will be holding their breath. If it happened and their decline was reversed, who knows? They might even spend more money on first class journalism.