Remember, Facebook got its data from you

March 25, 2018

This column originally appeared in The Province on March 25, 2018

Most info Google or Facebook has on you comes from one primary source (hint, look in the mirror). Change your Facebook password frequently, but don’t get too worried about some evil marketing genius hacking your brain and making you vote a certain way.

The Cambridge Analytica Facebook data scandal rocking politics has painted an unflattering picture of some political operatives, but it’s hardly worth getting worked up over.

Yet some people are reacting as though voters have lost the ability to think for themselves. Having worked on advertising campaigns for political parties and businesses, I can assure you that’s not the case.

What’s most surprising about this story is how unaware people are when it comes to understanding how companies like Facebook or Google make money. It’s not just about sharing selfies with your friends or looking up a restaurant review. The information you give them on a daily basis forms a core part of their business: selling targeted advertising space.

This data controversy follows an old road of complaints each time political parties embrace new media types. Whether it’s bemoaning “American Style” attack ads on television or “robocall” recorded phone messages, there’s always a group of people who manage to get themselves worked up enough to believe they’re witnessing the end of democracy.

Issues with how personal data and information is shared by gigantic technology companies is worth discussing. And if the company in question broke laws or policies it should be punished. But micro-targeting voters is as mainstream in politics as it is for those who sell running shoes.

When you cruise the internet looking at hotel reviews in Maui, it’s inevitable you’ll be bombarded with ads to visit the Aloha State pretty much every time you look at your phone or open your laptop. You’re being tracked. Political parties do this too.

Sure, the Cambridge Analytica story is loaded with marketing industry jargon that sounds scary. Phrases like “Big Data” and “Lookalike Audiences.” Yet it’s pretty standard stuff for any digital marketer.

But let’s recall how Cambridge Analytica got this data: 270,000 people downloaded an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” to take a personality test. These people surely didn’t need a personality test to let them know they’re naïve.

What matters here is what political campaigns can do with this data. Operatives love Facebook because it’s a two-way street: you don’t just send information, you learn about the people who are absorbing it. This is invaluable data for campaigns to build their target audiences and sell them on their candidate.

Yet there’s no guarantee mastering any of this will win you an election campaign. The only type of political ads that ever work are ones that fit into a larger narrative while tapping into a fundamental truth about a politician, for better or worse.

Barack Obama’s political campaign was “famously data driven” but it also had a winning message. This story shouldn’t be a bigger deal because the antagonist is an unpopular US President.

It is creepy how much companies and political parties know about you. But it’s just one of the trade-offs we make for living in a world where Siri or Alexa proactively give you advice on which road to take on the commute home to avoid a traffic jam.

Remember, you gave them the data in the first place. Don’t be surprised when they use it to talk back to you.

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