Speaking ahead of his appearance at the State of Social Conference, Thinkerbell founder Adam Ferrier (pictured below) shares his thoughts on what the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica privacy exposure means for brands and their social license.
Privacy and appropriate data use are emerging as a key risk for business in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and rolling revelations about the amount of data routinely collected by Facebook.
But the situation also offers an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate ethical practice, says leading consumer psychologist and founder of Thinkerbell, Adam Ferrier.
Ferrier says the scale of the revelations about data collection and misuse are perhaps less surprising than the revelation that no-one, not even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, appears to be fully in control.
Zuckerberg’s slow response to the Facebook community and media on the revelations that Cambridge Anlytica kept and used data accessed by a data-scraping app, and subsequent revelations including that a vulnerability in some phones allowed significant non-Facebook communications to be tracked, have been roundly criticised.
“The one thing it has highlighted for me is how little in control people are, and I think in Zuckerberg’s interview subsequently, he’s open about not really knowing what to do,” Ferrier said.
“He’s trying to communicate something by being pretty open about it and not knowing what the answers are.
“For most people there’s a sense of ‘I don’t get it, but it serves me well so I’ll ignore it.’ They want to feel like someone’s in charge or in control and therefore it’s easy for them to rationalise that even if I don’t understand it, everything’s ok.
“What’s happened here is that people are starting to think ‘oh gosh, nobody’s in control, nobody actually understands what’s going on,’ and that causes some disquiet.
“People don’t quite realise the implications of the thing they’re building and what they are creating.
It’s a potential opportunity for brands to step up and be explicit about their intentions and what data they are prepared to collect and to ignore, he says.
That could include brands making a public stance on their use of digital microtargeting.
“I think seeing brands take a strong point of view on social media data and telling us how they use it and being really explicit and transparent about it would be a fantastic thing for them to do,” Ferrier said.
“You do see brands these days stepping into roles that other infrastructures used to play in our lives as symbols of trust and they’re pretty good at doing it too because they’ve been around so long and providing us services so long.”
The value in gaining and maintaining a social licence to operate has seen many companies taking ethical stands in other areas of business as a way of convincing their consumers and the public that they are an appropriate company to do business with.
Ferrier says we can expect to see these companies take the same approach with social media data privacy.
“You’ll see more of it, some businesses like P&G and Unilever are raising the stakes – by bringing the issue to the fore.”
The recent revelations exposing Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to sell its credentials as an election influencer, have helped fuel the #deletefacebook movement, driven by users in an effort to protect their privacy and sway other users to follow suit.
But Ferrier says the likelihood of people embracing the #deletefacebook movement depends on the individual person’s disposition and dependency on the platform.
“If you’re highly paranoid and have a low-level use for Facebook then you’re likely to delete it. If you’re highly accepting and have a high need for Facebook then you won’t,” he says.
“It doesn’t take too many of these stories for people to start to change their perception of Facebook and it won’t take too many of these stories for people to start second guessing what they should be sharing.
Ferrier says the business model built on social media’s influence on behaviour could be threatened by the fear people feel around privacy intrusions — and the link to real-world changes such as the rise of Trump and Brexit.
“Social media is acting like Big Brother and suddenly starting to have these massive implications on society, how it’s shaped and how people are forming their views of the world and it’s not necessarily the responsibility of Facebook,” he says.
“What’s on social media is the manifestation of our culture – and it’s our own humanity getting played back to us and amplified, and that can look kind of scary.”
He notes the irony of members of the industry being more wary of social platforms and technology than the public for whom they design the products.
“I think Steve Jobs banned his kids from having mobile phones until there were above 13 years old,” Ferrier says.
“I wonder how much data Mark Zuckerberg has shared on Facebook himself. I’m quite sure the answer is very very little.”
“It seems like the more you know, the more careful you are, maybe we should be taking our behavioural leads from the people that create these toys.
“Their behaviours can show us the limitations or the perceived implications of what they are capable of.”