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On social media we are the product not the customer

PUBLISHED: 00:33 23 March 2018

Facebook found Mark Zuckerberg 
Photo: PA/Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

Facebook found Mark Zuckerberg Photo: PA/Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

SIPA USA/PA Images

Political parties have always sought to influence the public.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, speaks during the opening of the annual Facebook Developer Confernece 
Photo: PA/Andrej Sokolow/dpaMark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, speaks during the opening of the annual Facebook Developer Confernece Photo: PA/Andrej Sokolow/dpa

If they were not able to do that they would be redundant very quickly.

One of the most famous recent examples of influence is the 1979 Conservative election poster “Labour isn’t working”.

By the end of a decade scarred by industrial disputes, rubbish piled up on the streets and brown Austin Allegros, unemployment was high by post-war standards at around 6pc.

The Tories under Margaret Thatcher wanted to offer new hope and seized on those growing dole queues by plastering billboards with their simple, yet high-effective message.

That Saatchi & Saatchi campaign undoubtedly helped Mrs Thatcher win a 43-seat majority and became the standard bearer for many future election posters.

So what makes that different to the type of influence some have allegedly sought to gain via social media?

Excellent journalism from Channel 4 News and the Observer has this week apparently shed some light on the tactics employed by data firm Cambridge Analytica. Put simply this firm targets voters – it points political parties in the right direction.

Back in 1979 those Tory posters were deployed more heavily in marginal seats. Surely then this is just an update? Political campaigning in the 21st century?

Except some of CA’s tactics have now been called in to question. Their chief executive – currently suspended – revealed unwittingly to undercover reporters some of the methods he claims had been used previously, although whether they actually were or not remains to be seen.

But one of his quotes, somewhat lost among the claims of dirty tricks and spies, should have us worried: “It has to happen without anyone thinking it’s propaganda, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’ the next question is: ‘Who’s put that out?’”

This is what has changed. When the Tories put those posters up it was clearly a political statement. But today we consume messages differently.

Although back in 1979 the Tories knew they should put those posters up in marginals they did not know where the swing voters lived. When the foot soldiers went out door knocking they had to walk up every drive, stick leaflets through every letter box. Imagine the money parties would have saved if they could have ignored those who will always vote one way or another – imagine how powerful a tool that would have been?

Fast forward to the mid-2000s and that tool had been invented in the shape of social media and more specifically Facebook.

Although designed as a platform for university students to gossip, Facebook has now grown into a behemoth. In the UK it is estimated that by 2020 more than 35m people will have Facebook profiles – that is 52% of the population.

As you will know if you use Facebook, for the most part it is a stream of people’s children, their pets or personal triumphs. Think of a digital photo album.

But, of course, businesses wanted to be involved in such a power platform: News firms – this paper included – publish articles, supermarkets engage with customers and adverts are placed. Facebook, after all, is a business and seeks to make money.

And there is money in data – and a lot of personal data is on Facebook. At the last election many people openly shared if they had voted and who for, by way of an example.

But there are more complex methods as well to capture data as well. It is alleged that a seemingly harmless personality test posted on Facebook revealed details of how participants may vote. This data could then be used to target them.

Whether or not anyone has broken the law is not for me to speculate obviously. But it strikes me that the reason for the public outcry about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is not really that the data mining allegedly took place. It is that it happened in what many people viewed as a safe space populated by cute babies and fluffy kittens.

What we need to learn from this story is that we, the public, are not Facebook’s customers – we are the product. And influence, whether political or commercial, will continue to be sought.

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