Why the Facebook Data Scandal Doesn’t Matter, and Why It Does

You’ve heard all the news about how Facebook gave your data to Cambridge Analytica who used it to run ads affecting the election. It’s got all the soundbites of a sensationalized story – Facebook, private data, scandal, Russia, Trump, election.

A lot of media outlets don’t really understand it. Based on Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings, Congress certainly doesn’t understand it – or how the internet works for that matter. And most people, probably you included, don’t understand it.

I run Facebook ads. I get it. What happened wasn’t a big deal – at least for the reasons people are freaking out about. But what happened was also serious – for the reasons people aren’t thinking about.

Your “Private Data” Isn’t All That Important

Facebook didn’t leak anything important. Your email, phone number, social security number, passwords, bank accounts – none of that got out.

So what is your data? Your basic demographics – age, gender, location. And your interests – stuff you like, share and comment on. That’s about it.

And if you’re freaking out that people know personal stuff about you such as you having a pet or watching a certain show, well…

Nobody Cares About Your Data

Your friends don’t even see or care about half the stuff you post. No one else cares either.

There’s no one person at Facebook monitoring all your comments and likes and thinking about you. There’s no one individual at a company watching your every post waiting for you to say that you’re hungry and then clicking a button to send you an ad about their food.

You just aren’t that interesting. And part of our fear and insecurity about our personal data comes from this narcissistic view that all of our interests and behaviors are so important that other people want to know about it.

So why does your data matter?

Marketers Care About Large Groups of People Similar to You

No one cares that you individually, Bob Smith, like the Avengers movies. But they do care if a million people who are male and in their 20’s like the Avengers movies. Cause then they can deliver ads on Avengers T-Shirts to sell to people like you.

Here’s how it works.

Everything you do on Facebook is tracked and stored as data. I, as a marketer, want to run an ad for a specific type of person. I type those characteristics into Facebook ads. Facebook then shows that ad to people that match those characteristics. I pay Facebook when someone sees my ad, or when someone clicks on my ad.

I don’t know who those people are. Marketers don’t know who those people. No one can go to your individual profile, know what your interested in, and show you a specific ad.

So what happened with Cambridge Analytica that’s so bad?

Your Data (and Your Friend’s Data) was Used for Purposes Not Disclosed to You

Some dude made a Facebook quiz. Perfectly ok. A bunch of people took that quiz – perfectly normal, but not really what you should be wasting your time on. Stop taking Facebook quizzes.

That quiz had questions that put together a personality profile – which is what most quizzes do. That’s how you know what GOT character you are. Except this dude’s quiz was a little more sophisticated.

Also when you took that quiz, it got access to your data and your friends’ data. A little devious, but still normal. Every app and website you’ve ever used that has a “Signup with Facebook” option does this, and every app within Facebook does this. You agree to let them access certain data when you choose to use the app or website.

Here’s Where It Gets Dubious

This guy takes the quiz’s results, your interest data, and your friends’ data, and gives it to another company. This is against Facebook policy, but they did it anyway and it’s hard to stop.

At this point, it’s important to note that neither the guy, the quiz, nor the company know about you, Bob Smith, and your interests. All the data is hashed, meaning they just have answers associated with numbers – no one can track it back to you specifically.

The company that got the data is Cambridge Analytica. They took this sophisticated quiz, and came up with political profiles based on the answers. They took all the people that were probably Republicans or conservative, ran a bunch of ads that were pro-Trump, a bunch of fake news stories that were anti-Clinton, and reinforced the views that people already had.

That’s the scandal in a nutshell. People who took the quiz gave answers and consented to giving their personal data. No biggie, everyone does it all the time everywhere for everything. The big no-no was that the quiz guy gave it over to the campaign company to run political ads – without you knowing.

Here’s Why It Doesn’t Really Matter

Once again, no one got access to super important information like passwords and bank accounts – just your interests. No one got access to info tied to you as an individual – just quiz results tied to a bunch of anonymous accounts which ads were directed towards.

This scandal isn’t anything new – app companies have been breaking Facebook policies for years, using your data for other purposes. It’s not only restricted to Facebook, it’s a problem with Twitter, Google, and every other internet company.

Facebook hiding it isn’t all that surprising. They deal with these companies breaking policies all the time.

It’s bad that they aren’t able to stop it completely, but even that isn’t the worst problem.

Here’s Why It Really Does Matter

We are our own worst enemy. We hold a lot of beliefs, many of them untrue. Facebook is the mirror that reflects and amplifies those beliefs back at us.

It happens naturally in our news feed. If you like cat videos and watch cat videos, you’ll see more cat videos. If you like news articles from a particular news outlet, you’ll see more news articles from that news outlet. If you like news articles from a website that you think is true but actually publishes false stories, you’ll see (and believe) more fake news articles from that website.

If you’re a conservative and like conservative leaning posts, you’ll see more conservative leaning posts and articles until you actually believe that your worldview as a conservative is reality.

If you’re a liberal and like liberal leaning posts, you’ll see more liberal leaning posts and articles until you actually believe that your worldview as a liberal is reality.

You’ll also believe that anything that comes from the other perspective is fake.

It’s pretty innocent when marketers use that information to run ads for products. At most, it just gets annoying.

But the danger is when companies run ads for fake or narrowly opinionated articles and pass them as true and legitimate. Then you see that ad, and because it agrees with your worldview, you’re more likely to click on it, agree with it, and believe, hardening your worldview even more, even though it’s false.

The Blame’s On You

Facebook screwed up by not having tighter security measures. Cambridge Analytica is evil for using quiz data to run ads in order to manipulate people’s opinions.

But you’re the one consuming the stories. You’re the one believing what you see, and believing what you want to believe.

We are so concerned with what information gets leaked out, but don’t pay enough attention to what information we allow in.

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