How much longer can your brand stay on Facebook?

What if your customers start to associate your brand* with disinformation, hate speech and some of Facebook’s controversial behaviours?

Lots of companies, non-profits and other organisations have promotional pages or groups on Facebook. They might also use Facebook to target customers* with ads or ‘boosted content’. Due to the huge number of users and the incredible amount of data around their likes and dislikes, Facebook can help you reach your customers no matter how niche your product.

Up to now, many brands might write their risk assessments for social media based on customer interactions: “What if customers say something bad or attacks us? What will we do?”

These are completely reasonable concerns. But when you wrote your risk assessment did you plan for this scenario:

“What if Facebook does something that our customers don’t like and they associate that with us because we are on Facebook?”

Is it possible to catch the Facebook reputational lurgy?

A collection of apologies and bad press

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018 there has barely been a day when Facebook hasn’t been in the press. Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr supported by whistleblower Christopher Wylie have treated Facebook’s reputation like a game of giant Jenga, ably supported by Channel 4 News and the New York Times to name just two.

Zuckerberg apologising

Mark Zuckerberg in his own robotically earnest style, looked dead into the camera at the US Congressional hearing and apologised. “It was my mistake and I’m sorry”. Wow, he looked sad – even though it wasn’t his first rodeo. Since 2013 Facebooks misdemeanours have left him weepily apologetic on no less than then ten occasions. Maybe this time, he can see fit to keep his company on the straight and narrow?

That data was only resting in my account

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was like all my tin hat conspiracy dreams come to life. They really were sucking out our data and loaning it to ruthless, democracy stabbing demagogues and using their expert nerd baddies to manipulate voters in elections all over the world. It was just like I’d always been saying! They even think they put that orange head sad sack in the White House.

Cambridge Analytica investigation Channel 4 News

Zuckerberg meanwhile denied he knew everything Cambridge Analytica had been up to (I’ve been working to understand what happened) despite taking millions from them in ad revenue and having his own staff embedded with them inside the Trump campaign HQ to help them get the best bang for their buck. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica both succeeded in skilfully balancing being opinion bending data ninjas whilst simultaneously being unaware of the laws they’d broken or the people’s trust they’d betrayed. It’s unsurprising as Alexander Nix can’t even seem to work out what the company he’s running is even called or where the office is but is still able to topple a Prime Minister given the word.

But at least they’ll never lose our data

Although it’s clear that Facebook thinks nothing of snooping around the smalls draw of your data and having a good sniff whenever they feel like it until recently most people believed their data was secure. After all, it’s not in Facebook’s interest to let other people steal your data when they want to use it to get richer.

The recent hacking of up to 50 million accounts (30 million complete personal data sets) seems to suggest they aren’t quite as on top of things as they would have us believe. Being such a large and powerful company with so many users makes them a target for all sorts of nefarious types. There are so many juicy things you could find out.

Want to know where all your political dissidents live and who their friends are? No problem! Once you know you can just pop around their place and arrest them – the data gives you an open and shut case. Want to find out when someone goes on holiday so you can rob their house? No problem! Pop around when they start sharing their pictures by the pool.

If another similar hack happens and private family messages end up on the open market with several contacts being shown to be your customers what will you do if they put some of the blame on you no matter how unfair that might be?

How porous do Facebook servers have to be before customers start to get angry?

Let’s hope it never happens eh?

Fake news, disinformation and hate speech

Even though Mark Zuckerberg has made many statements about taking on ‘fake news’, hate speech and all the bad stuff by hiring 20,000 extra staff, you wonder if the problem is at a scale that it can even be dealt with.

There are a ton of fake accounts floating around social media and more are being created all the time. Social media platforms, to a large extent, know which accounts are fake or automated in some way beyond a regular profile. What do they do about it? Well firstly, active accounts are important in creating a thriving busy social network but are also a major metric for reporting growth the shareholders. For Zukerborg, if active accounts are rising rapidly than it’s one less set of difficult questions to answer every quarter.

Contrary to most media narratives the Russians aren’t the only people who might want to disrupt the news and spread false information. There are numerous political, criminal and commercial players that have an interest in trying to influence public opinion as well as election outcomes.

Chris Wylie on disinformation video

The tobacco industry supposedly paid for research into the dangers of asbestos and how it might be deadly and widely publicised this as an alternative to directly addressing the scientifically established risks of cigarette addiction. That battle was just too difficult to win so the strategy was to flood the news with an alternative, less sociable ways to die.

Throughout the EU and US, we’ve seen the spread of an “anti-foreigner” theme in the news. Blaming those in society least able to fight back is extremely convenient for politicians who are not delivering on promises. If you want to get angry direct it at this largely anonymous, vulnerable group of people and treat them like they are all the same. This isn’t anything new.

One area where social media platforms seem serious is on porn. If you want to maximise your demographic, grot is a bad look. Their algorithms seem good at picking up and blocking nudity. They seem to struggle with everything else even if they have a little help from humans. Policies around what is and isn’t appropriate seems (for Facebook) highly subjective. They do, it seems, get it wrong but the ‘correct’ answer is far from obvious and they are learning as they go.

Under pressure from right-wing campaigners in the US and accusations of a left-wing bias, Facebook has arguably provided a lot of slack to people with racist, sexist or homophobic views pushing ‘free speech’. Even if this is legal in the UK it’s not the sort of thing most brands want to be associated with.

Are you comfortable with posts from your brand appearing in between a video of a Holocaust denier and a Saudi state-sanctioned beheading? A bit extreme example but you’re not in control of what people see on their feeds.

If Facebook can’t find a way to keep things a bit more civilised will you stick around?

There must be some upsides?

There are some big upsides to Facebook which is what keeps so many advertisers still on the platform. Up to now, it’s been very useful for driving traffic to brand websites. Lots of it. For many brands, it will drive a lot more traffic than other social networks. There are a host of websites which are very reliant on Facebook traffic for their audience and businesses that won’t exist if that traffic falls away.

The very fluffy ‘brand exposure’ is also seen as another key reason to be on Facebook. All our rivals are on there, so we should be too. But why would you want your trusted brand which you’ve worked hard to build, sinking daily into the moral cesspit of Facebook? Will it really be possible to emerge IRL without getting all mucky?

Facebook would claim that their advertising platform offers more bang for the buck than any channel on or offline, thanks to the data they hold about users. Facebook also has a further card to play with Instagram which also allows adverts with one in every four Insta posts paid for, a fact largely unknown to its users. It’s clear that this will extend to What’s App? too at some point. When you consent to share data with one of the Facebook family of companies you consent to share with all.

Advertising rates, however, can vary and you are at the mercy of the algorithm in terms of who sees what and when. If Facebook decides to prioritise friends and family instead of news as they did back at the start of 2018, you will see the availability of ad slots decrease and the cost of those scarcer slots increase. You are always subject to their reactionary whims.

Something needs to dramatically change

If Facebook is serious about wanting their platform to be the number one destination for advertisers they need to make some serious changes. A change of leadership will at this stage, only be symbolic. Making Sandberg CEO won’t change a thing nor will any of the other senior Execs many of whom have been friends of Zuckerberg before working for Facebook.

Facebook started as a social network. You created an account and linked up with your friends and shared your lives. The emphasis changed to what it is now – not a social network but an attention acquiring advertising platform with the occasional picture of your uncle’s cat. The social network bit hit the back burner.

The myth continues that the service Facebook provides is free. You and your families data has a moral value to you but a cash value to Facebook who use it to make money. So your participation is not free, you provide information which has a cash value. Your data is not sold but rented to advertisers. As Aral Balkan says you don’t sell dairy cows you milk them.

What can brands do to limit the risk?

Anyone with a brand (company, charity, organisation, product or anything else) should keep a close eye on the news around Facebook and should weigh the mountains of bad press against the upsides they get from using it. Is the traffic you receive worth it? If so then carry on but keep a close eye on things – don’t stick your head in the sand.

Look at these tweets from Michael Veale for just a fortnight of Facebook in the news:

Facebook in a fortnight tweet

Looking at other sources of stats is important too. Do your web or campaign analytics support what Facebook is telling you? Other sources are important as Facebook has been known to be a little economical with some of their video stats so there is a possibility other stats they produce might have been exaggerated.

Withdrawing from Facebook is an option and one that I think will become more common for brands where the Facebook ads stop delivering the benefits they once did.

A third option is to stay on Facebook but distance your brand from the PR maelstrom.

For charities and non-profits, I think this is especially important. They have built up a high level of public trust and goodwill. The recent Charity Digital Code says that charities should consider if digital tools share their organisational ethics and values and there is no charity that would claim to be aligned with Facebook on values.

You could send a note to your customers saying that your organisation and Facebook have very different values and that by being on Facebook doesn’t mean you are unaware of approve of Facebook’s actions, and that you intend to keep the issue of your presence there under review.

Whichever way you cut it for now I think you will need to push that ejector seat button yourself before someone does it for you.

For the purposes of this post I’ve described a brand as any company, non-profit, other organisation, product or anything else which might have a Facebook page or group. I’m also going to use ‘customers’ as a catch all for service users or beneficiaries which some organisations prefer.

James Mullarkey

I write about the web and digital, mediocre sporting performances and places I've been, for this blog and only this blog.