What Facebook knows about you and me and what I can do about it


Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information from a huge swath of the electorate to develop techniques that were later used in the Trump campaign.

Source: How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions – The New York Times


I often have consultations with clients involving data sources. Marketing has always been closely tied to the acquisition¬†and analysis of data related to potential target audiences or desired demographics. A large part of what I do every day is staring at spreadsheets and trying to derive direction or wisdom out of data that Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snap or Google has gathered from their (often overlapping) groups of¬†products users for our clients’ campaigns.

I loathe using the term “campaign” to refer to anything marketing related… it’s not a battle and we’re not at war. Even worse is the dehumanization that often occurs in marketing conversations we all have about the data generated by real people on the web. Both are related in that our gathering and use of this data combined with our resulting conclusions and “targeting” (again with the militaristic violent language) makes actual people into abstract data points.

It’s little talked about in our industry, but data ethics are something we really need to take more seriously in all aspects of our marketing efforts, whether you’re working with a Fortune 500 company or a small country church.

I know that I personally feel a twitch of regret mixed with reservation when I click on a radio buttons to specify that I’d like to target women above the age of 40 who have relationship issues but live in this affluent ZIP code and enjoy looking at pictures of wine and spirits on Instagram. It’s terrifying. But, it’s relatively cheap and incredibly effective. Our church and nonprofit clients on shoestring budgets can’t get enough of the reach and response from this kind of data marketing (“like shooting fish in a barrel” is a common saying for a reason).

I did a good deal of work on ethics in Divinity School. I’m taking a course in the coming weeks on Data Science Ethics. Now, I need to do a better job of thinking through these types of marketing efforts and explaining the ethical implications of using this data given that most people have NO IDEA how much is known about them (yes, because of Facebook and social media but also because of the relative ease of connecting someone’s phone number or address or email with their browsing history, activity on location tracking services, voter records etc). I need to do a better job of helping clients think through the humanization and dehumanization involved with marketing and advertising and their own goals (especially for churches and nonprofits). I need to do a better job of providing real alternatives to the types of data usage that resulted in situations like our current political climate. I need to provide shoestring budget options for marketing that emphasizes humanity and relatedness rather than victory.

Otherwise, I’m just hanging out in Omelas.

Is there space for “ethical marketing” in a crowded environment of agencies driving the cost of “targeting” and “campaigning” and “development” to the lowest common denominator in terms of price and friction? I’m not sure. But I’m just crazy enough to start giving it a try.

Published by Sam Harrelson

I'm the head of Harrelson, where we work with churches, nonprofits, and businesses on marketing strategy and consulting. This has been my personal blog about marketing, tech, religion, art, history, scifi, family, and life in general since 2006.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply