“Knowledge is power,” the saying goes. Following the revelations about the amount of personal information Facebook has collected on its users, perhaps that should be changed to “data is power”. The big problem is that because we seem to have lost control of our own data, we don’t know who is wielding the power.
The Cambridge Analytica debacle has blown open something that many insiders have long warned of. The personal details of 87 million people have been harvested and used for what? Influencing elections? Or just to help companies sell more stuff? Nobody really knows and therein lies the problem: how much of our data is being collected and what it is being used for remains the hidden part of a very murky digital iceberg.
If you are a Facebook user and you want to get an idea of the kind of information the platform has collected on you, download your data by following the instructions here. I consider myself to be pretty good at managing my privacy on Facebook and didn’t discover anything untoward, but many users have been shocked by the stuff the company had collected and was presumably offering to third parties.
We’ve all become a digital file
But should this all really be such a big surprise? For years we’ve happily signed up to Facebook, Twitter and Google, freely shared our photos, given away our location and searched for everything from addresses to medical conditions. This technology does amazing stuff, but it doesn’t cost us a penny – or at least so we thought. Now we see that the true cost of democratising the web and engaging with the world is that we’ve all become a digital file, to be bought and sold to people who at best want to flog us more stuff and at worst want to influence the way we think and behave.
For example, the type of algorithm that helpfully provides you with new music selections on Spotify will also be used by Amazon to sell more downloads, books and festival tickets by targeting your tastes. The Google Maps app you use to find directions will also now tell you how long your commute will be in morning – because it’s figured out where you live and work – and ask you to rate a restaurant because it knows you’ve been there. Not only is Big Brother watching, it’s trying to influence what you watch and where you eat.
The technology we were told would transform the way we live has now also become an intrusive risk to the security of our personal data. For consumers this is all very confusing because they are getting mixed messages. On one hand they are being told that their current account information is now going to be opened up to the world via Open Banking, supposedly to improve the competiveness in the financial services market, while on the other being urged to protect their data against fraud.
Social media will need to change
It feels like things are coming to a head and social media will need to change, whether because of consumer anger at recent scandals, platform owners finally taking on more responsibility for how their sites are used, or as a result of regulation, be it state-imposed or industry self-regulation.
As a communications professional working in financial services, an industry that has seen more regulation than most, I think it’s beholden on us to think more clearly about how and why we use social media and digital communications. Who are the people we want to talk to, why and how do we seek to influence them and how do we manage the information we have on them?
So here are a few predictions for how social media and digital communications will change over the coming years, and the role we can play in shaping that.
- Platforms like Facebook will spend more time vetting their content, while sites like Buzzfeed will take a more journalistic approach and produce their own stories, in an attempt to counter the worst excesses of fake news and extreme views. As a result it’ll be harder for businesses to get cut-through on these channels without some kind of paid promotion. The days of pumping out as much stuff on as many channels as possible is over.
- Good content has always been important, but social media users will now become more discerning about the stuff they read, like and share. So, companies and their communications advisers will need to focus more on unique stories with an authentic voice that their readers will take notice of and make their brand stand out.
- Forward-looking companies will actually become their own publishers, creating and collating news and information they know their customers are interested in and hosting it on trusted and secure sites, like our client Nucleus and its Illuminate hub.
Digital and social media still has a major role to play in the way businesses communicate, but more than ever it needs to be integrated into communications and marketing planning and not treated as a last minute add-on. If not, we might as well follow the example of pub chain JD Wetherspoon and delete all our accounts.