The harvesting by Cambridge Analytica (CA) of the personal details of an estimated 87 million Facebook users is rightly being investigated by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
It has been alleged that CA, which has since gone out of business, used the data to help their customers to try to influence the outcome of elections and referenda in many parts of the world, notably during the US presidential campaign and also during the UK’s 2016 referendum on leaving the EU.
Whether these attempts were successful remains to be seen, but the episode does raise questions about individuals’ rights on Social Media, especially in the light of the imminent introduction of new Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
While individuals ultimately have the responsibility for deciding who can see their interactions on social media, and therefore, if they don’t act could be argued to be fair game, it is likely that GDPR will at least force social media platforms to be more careful to whom they permit data access.
What difference does all this make to promotional activities on Social Media?
The first question is whether Facebook, Twitter and other social media users will be less active on these platforms.
So far, it seems not. Research by Reuters/Ipsos in the US has found that a quarter of Facebook users in the survey said they used it less or had left it but another quarter said they used it even more. The other half said their use had not changed.
As yet, there have been no similar surveys on the other side of the Atlantic and the situation is only likely to become a little clearer when Facebook reveals its next quarterly profits.
Facebook, particularly, but also other platforms, derives most of its revenue from advertising on its pages. This has been claimed to be particularly useful to small businesses, especially those that operate within defined local areas.
But it is questionable whether using it to generate sales directly is quite so effective as is claimed. Indeed, Facebook users have recently had to choose whether Facebook can collect and use personal data to serve targeted ads where the opt-out means users will see general ones; there was no opt-out from seeing ads.
Businesses can also use Social Media effectively to raise their brand’s profile, enhance their reputation and drive visitors to their websites and so far, there appears to be no reason why they should not continue to do so. However, like Google AdWords that are served to online searches the social media platforms are restricting visibility in favour of paid-for access to eyeballs.
Nevertheless, despite the influence peddled by CA and restrictions imposed by GDPR, businesses should still recognise that Social Media is becoming a key ingredient of the promotion mix.
As a consequence, businesses need to be very careful about collecting and analysing the personal data of customers, especially with regard to consent.