For a few days now the Media have been focusing their attention on Facebook. Allegedly, the company granted the analysis firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) access to the profiles of over 50 million American citizens, to whom CA allegedly targeted messages during the Presidential election campaign, ultimately favoring Donald Trump’s election. Without looking into the matter in legal terms, but trying to interpret the impact on the sector and, more in general, on society, 5 key points have emerged from this episode that are worth remembering and that reaffirm the characteristics of the current digital market.
1) At this historic moment the competitive advantage in the digital market consists in owning great amounts of data and computing power to process it. This is the algorithm’s (new) victory that, after having dominated the content proposal market (i.e. “search engines”) now prevails in the previous phase: profiling a target for a specific message.
2) The “average citizen’s” attention to managing their own data online is less than low. There are two possible interpretations: the first option is that users blindly trust online platforms and digital players, but this would bring users to turn their backs on them the minute a scandal emerges, which is not happening; the other possibility is that the topic of privacy is a fake – or at least not a very important – problem. The use of blockchain systems is a good thing, that even Facebook has already defined as the new frontier of online security, but the thought that users are not too worried that big international enterprises know everything about them is, today, much more than mere speculation. Actually, these user happily enjoy customized services enabled by the exchange mechanism. In the end, it’s a return to bartering: information in exchange for customized services – the new “middle-dig-age”.
3) The (illegal) mechanism established, more or less knowingly by Facebook and Cambridge Analytics did NOT elect Trump president of the USA, nor did it force the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Since always, with the means available, communicators have tried to influence electors (or consumers in business marketing) through licit or illicit behavior, sometime succeeding, sometimes failing. However, no technology or ruse has ever cast the ballot. Possibly, the real question is: how to develop a more critical outlook in citizens considering the increasing myriad of information sources?
4) It’s only right to question the responsibilities of communication sources. Nonetheless, in a telephone conversation, nobody would blame two telephone providers if two people having a conversation should plot something illegal. Why then, should this not apply to digital platforms? Waiving, for a moment, illegal sharing of user data, why should Facebook (or YouTube, or any other platform) be considered responsible for conversations occurring through their assets? When are digital platforms merely communication vehicles and when are they publishers? The debate is still open.
5) We have to deal with it: Facebook will continue to exist and will overcome future scandals, which will certainly happen. Does anyone remember the companies that following the association of their advertisements with insulting videos on YouTube, announced their intention of interrupting investments through the platform? Most of them have gone back to investing exactly there. Alphabet (which means Google, owner of YouTube) registered considerable revenue growth in 2017, indicating the video platform (in addition to mobile technology) as its main growth driver. If the platform “works”, no scandal can blemish it. Facebook resists because it works: it works for users who, for the time being, are still seeking entertainment from its pages, and it works for advertising investors who easily reach their targets. A change in market leadership will come from the market itself: a technology, a platform, a company, from “something” that will work better than Facebook & co. and (hardly irrelevant) will turn down merger offers from these same players.