First, let's recap what the whole scandal is about. I have seen numerous reports about this from all sorts of media outlets- be it CNN, CBC, or even the Daily Wire. Here's a rough but fairly accurate recap of what's been said via various outlets so far. Near as I can tell, this project had a few stages and started in 2014. It was initiated by Steve Bannon. He wanted an information tool to change the minds and hearts of American voters and bring Republicans to the forefront of American legislative and political life. The project itself was to create psych profiles of people likely to vote Republican, people likely to turn away from the likes of Hillary and Sanders, and people likely to vote Republican but who are dismayed at the situation in their home towns in "flyover states" and haven't voted in a while Then, the task was to use a data source to find out who these people might be, and where they are in USA. Finally, once this data was obtained, the goal was to run marketing campaigns on social media via third parties- campaigns that were hyper-targeted at those people and that would eventually prime them to vote Republican.
Sounds like something any ad agency would normally try to do, doesn't it? Or, any major company like a clothing or electronics retailer.
With that said, here's what was bad about it and why this whole thing with Cambridge Analytica is a scandal, not a triumph. When you advertise to people via Facebook marketing campaigns, you use typical demographic data and something Facebook calls Affinity to figure out who your most likely target market is and where they are versus THE REST OF FACEBOOK USERS. While this can get very specific and you can target groups of people, you NEVER KNOW WHO THESE INDIVIDUALS ARE based off of Facebook's Audience Insights alone. The huge misstep that Cambridge Analytica did was in their data collection approach. They partnered with a guy who had a survey app that paid a few bucks to everyone who completed the survey. The app had legitimate approval of Facebook to access all Facebook page info from those users and their friends who didn't have tight enough privacy settings. Apparently, nothing wrong with that- people have to read the fine print. Where things went horribly wrong was when this individual gave that user info to Cambridge Analytica to create psych profiles of all these people, know who they are, and hyper target them. See, there is a huge difference between psych profiling specific people using Facebook data, and creating purchase behavior profiles of groups of people whose individual data you don't know. That's a major fine line that should not have been crossed. That, and the fact the app creator was ostensibly not supposed to forward this data to another company, for profit or otherwise. The final part of the bad side of everything that happened is that they tested keywords and propaganda messages that would stick with these people the most and manipulate them into voting Republican. They didn't care if the ads were factually correct or total disinformation poisonous propaganda- they just wanted to win. The sole fact that this was their approach means that they acted in bad faith and didn't think they could win with cogent, sound and factually correct arguments and without the use of emotionally charged, manipulative language. That's pretty bad, and it muddies the good side of the entire endeavor (which- once again- does exist).
Now, about the good side. Yes, it's difficult to talk about good sides of things branded as major scandals, but if you weren't directly affected by it you must try to be objective and examine every side of an issue. The good side has everything to do with what advertising online through platforms like Facebook can do. Platforms like this are often the great equalizer for businesses of all shapes and sizes. USA, and especially Canada, are lands of small businesses, entrepreneurs and startups. If you have a business or you're looking to start one, analyzing customer data through these advertising platforms can help you gear your offerings to your target market so well that you can stand toe to toe with much larger companies. How do you survive as an independent business owner in the world of increasing franchises and gigantic online marketplaces? You offer your target market something that they want, that the big guys either can't or won't offer. Small businesses are more nimble, innovative and can create new offers while shutting down old ones without any red tape. Oh, and even if their ad budget is smaller than the big guys', there is still a metric across most of these platforms called Relevance Score that allows a more relevant ad to beat out less relevant ads from big budget companies. If that isn't awesome, I don't know what is. So, with these ad platforms, every single determined business out there has a fighting chance. Everyone has equal opportunity to showcase what they offer to a target market, and no one will be totally drowned or bullied out of the chance to share what they have with the world, and get paid!
So, dearest readers, as you can see there are always two sides to every story. With Facebook advertising, there are potentials for both good and bad things. You may feel like deactivating your account too, you may feel like Facebook shouldn't exist any more (or at least not as a platform for marketers), or you may feel Facebook should become a subscription service so that they don't have to make money off of ad campaigns. If you start going down this path, consider this. First, every ad you see- whether it looks like one or not- has been paid for by people pushing a product, a service or an idea. If you get interested in one of these, get informed before you get with it, as Facebook currently does not have power to police ads effectively without your help and sound judgment and that's a fact- at least for now. Second and final, consider this. Let's say you like fried chicken, but you're tired of KFC and totally crave something unusual like fried chicken on a stick that's dipped in chocolate. Sounds nice, right? Well, a huge franchise company with a big ad budget like KFC will never offer this because it's not mainstream and cheap enough for them to profit large-scale off it. However, a cool new local fried chicken place might. If you'd give anything to try this type of chicken, the only way you'll find out about it if you don't live in that neighborhood is via social media, Google, Pinterest or other such ads! If you forsake the whole system, you can ostensibly kiss these cool new companies goodbye. Maybe that's acceptable to some, but it's not acceptable to me. :)