Facebook has more registered users in the UK than every other social media platform with the exception of YouTube. But a flow of bad news and data concerns have hit the platform in recent weeks. Will this impact on users and what could this mean for communicators?
by Albert Freeman
If you’ve ever used Facebook apps to play games such as Scrabble or ‘What type of vegetable are you?’, the chances are you’ve shared quite a bit of personal data about yourself, and probably data about your friends too. Until recently you might have thought of such apps as being fairly benign.
But the Cambridge Analytica scandal about how they use Facebook data has understandably caused quite a stir, and made users think more about the type of data they share through Facebook. There is talk of Facebook’s demise as a growing number of people hop on the #deleteFacebook movement in disgust as more is revealed about the episode.
So, what does this mean for us in communications? The implications of swathes of people leaving Facebook are obvious. But even if people don’t actually delete their accounts in droves I still think it could have lasting implications for us.
So, will significant numbers of people actually delete their Facebook accounts?
Personally, I think in reality most people, even if they have a break from Facebook, will stop short of permanently deleting their account. I suspect a lot of those who are leaving the platform will be doing so as a temporary protest because of the scandal, and I reckon they will return.
I feel Facebook has grown so big it is more like a (social) media company with the longevity of Sky, and I can't see it going the same way as MySpace or Friends Reunited. I agree with a recent Guardian article that says “being able to distance yourself from Facebook these days is a privilege", and for many people it has become too important to walk away from.
So, what other implications are there for comms if people don’t actually leave Facebook? I’ll come round to that after a point of clarification about what has allegedly happened with Cambridge Analytica.
The same Guardian article mentioned above says "Jim Killock, from Open Rights Group, an organisation that works to protect the right to privacy online, suggests “posting less, sharing less and, most importantly, removing page ‘likes’ as these are a major way [Facebook tries] to profile you”. Killock further suggests using “privacy plug-ins to block Facebook cookies, and cookies from other websites…"
Picking that apart, that advice troubles me as much as the prospect of people deleting their accounts. The effect of people "removing page ‘likes’” speaks for itself. But also, given the fact that the recent algorithm change now places more value on shares, it will be bad news for page engagement if, as Jim KIllock suggests, people “share less”.
If people react to the current news by installing privacy plug-ins, and blocking cookie access, this will also affect our ability to show the right content to the right people through Facebook advertising, will harm our ability to measure the value of our comms, and has the potential to interrupt user journeys on our websites. We’re working through similar issues at the moment, as we bring our privacy policies in line with the GDPR and try to make it clear that cookies are actually pretty useful, if not essential for certain things. So I hope people don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Speaking of the GDPR, the new legislation will hopefully make it less likely that similar underhand tactics will be employed in the future. If there is a similar misuse of Facebook data after GDPR becomes law, Facebook will be obliged to inform the ICO. Having said that, I don’t envy the ICO having the task of keeping on top of this, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal could just be one of many.
So, what can we do about all this?
I feel the events of the first quarter of 2018 - first the big Facebook algorithm change, and now this Cambridge Analytica scandal - have been a reminder of how vulnerable we are to changes in social media platforms when we invest so many of our resources in them.
I’ve been investing more of my energy in email marketing and engaging people in different ways through email over the past year or two. And I feel email will have a new lease of life in comms as the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica saga becomes clear. I feel we can to a certain extent protect ourselves from changes to social media platforms by continuing to invest in email.
There have been a couple of times this year at Bradford Council (the budget consultation and recent severe weather) when the strength of email have really shone through. We continue to gain more subscribers, and our engagement rate has steadily been on the up. I feel more confident about our future digital comms as a result, despite what happens with social media.
As people switch their allegiances between different social media platforms, virtually all people will continue to retain an email address. I might be wrong about the number of people who actually decide to delete their Facebook account. But I’m fairly confident none of them are going to stop using email. The way email is sent, delivered and read does not look likely to change significantly anytime soon.
So, I’m not suggesting it’s all over for communications on Facebook. But let’s not forget the value of email.
And I don’t know about you, but I can live without knowing what type of vegetable I am.
Albert Freeman is marketing and communications officer at City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council
image via Tullio Saba