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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Before gloating over the latest Facebook scandal, publishers should get their data houses in order

April 5, 2018 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

Facebook has been under fire ever since the revelation that it allowed the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest user data and use that information as fodder for the Trump campaign. While outrage against the social media giant is warranted, we also ought to be concerned about the entire digital advertising ecosystem, where everyone — including publishers — is on the hunt for data.

Indeed, rather than just pointing at Facebook, feeling smug and a bit of schadenfreude, publishers and advertisers should take a deeper look at their own practices. And how about going even further: Take a leading role in ensuring user privacy. Think about what you can do to make sure data hunger doesn’t comprise user interest.

Walled Garden War

Anger toward Facebook isn’t anything new for media companies and publishers. If anything, the Cambridge Analytica scandal is just one point on a timeline documenting publishers’ tempestuous relationship with Facebook. At a recent Platforms + Publishers roundtable I produced at Facebook, there were plenty of angry small publishers who pointed to a loss of 50% or more of Facebook-referred traffic. Someone even mentioned that going to Facebook was like going back to an abusive partner. You think things are getting better and then, smack! you are hit with an algorithm change and a poisonous political data scandal.

As Axios’ Scott Rosenberg put it, the current fury against Facebook is personal for journalists because they, along with their institutions, blame Facebook (as well as other tech behemoths like Google) “for seducing their readers, impoverishing their employees, and killing off their jobs.” Given the stronghold Facebook and Google have over the digital advertising industry — which has also rendered publishers and advertisers dependent on the duopoly — any backlash that can knock down these tech companies, even a little, stands to make things better for their competitors and the ecosystem at large.

Data Hypocrisy 

But there are a couple fallacies with that kind of thinking. First, Facebook has played a crucial role in helping news outlets reach their audiences where their audiences are. And it’s no secret that the micro-targeting of a news item to user — based on the data gathered — worked to help the publisher, even if publishers always felt they were on the losing end of the relationship. And Facebook has certainly made a much bigger effort at helping to drive memberships, donations and subscriptions to publishers; in fact, that was the overarching theme of the roundtable I produced at Facebook.

And secondly: While it’s easy to nurture a grudge against Facebook, it’s harder to understand the complex relationships between publishers and platforms – where there can be collaboration and animosity. National outlets may be more vocal about their criticism around Facebook’s ability to adequately compensate publishers. However, local publishers in particular see Facebook, Google and other major tech platforms as potential allies that can help elevate their standing, and help them compete with national outlets.

Not only that, but consider BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano’s scoop that both The Economist and the Financial Times hired Cambridge Analytica to help them grow their subscriber base in the United States. It’s unclear whether the data benefited the two British companies, but clearly, that’s what they were looking for. As media and tech thinker Doc Searls accurately notes, news publishers are also guilty of using third-party tracking apps that return internet advertising to their users. But, as everyone is now realizing, there’s no guarantee what actually happens to that data. “What will happen when the [New York] Times, the New Yorker and other pubs own up to the simple fact that they are just as guilty as Facebook of leaking its readers’ data to other parties, for—in many if not most cases—God knows what purposes besides ‘interest-based’ advertising?” Searls wrote on his Harvard blog.

Taking the Lead

To be sure, the momentum against Facebook (and Google) has been piling up for some time, and the latest scandal is unlike any other that has reached Facebook. As the company reels in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica data leaks, it’s cut third-party data providers out of its ad targeting, added safeguards like an email certification tool for marketers, emphasized its support for local news publishers, and considered more heavily its approach to data collection. Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to discuss the crisis in an apology tour with various news outlets and journalists. It’s safe to say Facebook knows its product (and reputation) is on the line.

But the best reckoning publishers could have right now is not about Facebook, but themselves — and the steps they can take to make sure they have their own data houses in order. As the Association of National Advertisers put it in a statement, “In truth, the Cambridge Analytica controversy is greater than Facebook alone…It’s a brand reputation and data security risk for every ANA member that advertises and monetizes brands on online and mobile outlets.”

One huge step, already started by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF), is to call for new industry guidelines and standards around data collection that also focuses on prioritizing user protection. The ARF has invited other industry bodies to contribute to the endeavor; now it’s up to the rest of the players in the digital advertising ecosystem, publishers and advertisers included, to do their share to ensure a safer internet. Data is the ultimate feast for everyone, but if the hunger for it leads to toxic consequences, it poisons the entire body.

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