—Over the last few weeks, investigations by the Guardian and Channel 4 News, revealing how Cambridge Analytica harvested data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles and used tactics such as entrapment and the spread of fake news in election campaigns, have created a tide of anti-Facebook rhetoric which caused the social media giant’s shares to fall by 8 per cent on a single day of trading.
However, as the dust clouds of chaos that resulted from the furore settle, how far has opinion actually been changed. From qualitative questioning by Shout Out UK to a group of 16-to-18-year-olds the verdict was clear: despite the shock from the revelations, the numerous pull factors of Facebook still outweigh any concerns.
When our focus group was asked whether they ‘cared’ that their information may had been used without consent, the group was split between those who saw the election tactics by Cambridge Analytica as nothing more than ‘modern door-step campaigning’, and those who were shocked at how much Facebook knew about them and could use that information. ’I never realised, they knew that much about me’, said one 17-year-old.
Aside from a feeling of shock at the revelations, perhaps what best reflected the mood was when one member said:
‘We all put our birthdays, our photos, our views on there, and at the end of the day we do that for likes and comments, not for Trump to try and persuade us to vote for him’.
It is this that pertinently shows that despite any shock felt, the truth is that Facebook has not lost its pull and probably never will.
This is because of two things:
Firstly, the majority of people use Facebook for watching ‘funny videos’ and ‘seeing what people are doing’, rather than to try and decide whom to vote for in an election. These things have not been affected by the controversy.
Although political engagement is on the increase, the political posts being shared by Facebook users are most of the time ‘organic’ (posts created by other users or themselves) rather than official political adverts, such as those created or being targeted through Cambridge Analytica. It can be argued that the investigations have not had the significant effect some expected. In an era of people mistrusting news organisations and politicians, what their friends share or say, regardless of the reliability, remains more persuadable.
Secondly, the infrastructure of Facebook is very difficult to ‘escape from’. One 17-year-old said: ‘I can’t not use Facebook, I use the messenger app to organise events, and use groups to sell or buy items’. While another added: ‘without the groups I wouldn’t know what’s going on’.
As much as the infrastructure of Facebook is currently intractable, that doesn’t mean it will indefinitely remain so. Nobody felt any ‘loyalty’ to the site, and all those asked if they would feel comfortable moving to another social media network, as long as it offered the same opportunities, said yes. So at minimum, the recent anti-Facebook rhetoric has at least given a space for a new site to emerge.
Some efforts have also been made to link Brexit to these ‘dirty’ campaigning tactics. We asked about this too. As is so often in the political debate since the referendum, some of the answers were determined by whichever side one supported. ‘Of course they lied, and yes they may have cheated’, says one Remain voter. However, surprisingly, the issue had caused a level of apathy among both Leave and Remain supporters, suggesting a general weariness amongst the public to keep regurgitating the referendum result.
When news cycles have a critically short lifespan, the fact that the furore over Facebook has not matched up to a significant change in opinion, is indicative of our times. When discussing the news, the Cambridge Analytica story does not feature as a popular topic of discussion. However, it is clear that with each fake news scandal, hate post that is not removed, and now data misuse revelations, more people are prepared to leave the site when a new and improved social media network inevitably arrives. Besetting the air of indifference from the majority of those asked, was at least a feeling of young people being more aware of the murky and at times ‘dodgy’ dealings of Facebook — something that will no doubt be capitalised on in the future.