Churches and nonprofits should realize that Facebook privacy issues are just the tip of the iceberg

Way back in 2012, I was featured in a New York Times article titled “How To Muddy Your Tracks on the Internet” and offered up this bit as part of my interview (I was teaching Middle School Science at the time):

“The topic of privacy policies and what lies ahead for our digital footprints is especially fascinating and pertinent for me, since I work with 13- and 14-year-olds who are just beginning to dabble with services such as Gmail and all of Google’s apps, as well as Facebook, Instagram, social gaming,” he said. “I have nothing to hide, but I’m uncomfortable with what we give away.”

It feels like we were so naive then, doesn’t it? Perhaps.

Here’s a segment from a great post by Doc Searls:

Let’s start with Facebook’s Surveillance Machine, by Zeynep Tufekci in last Monday’s New York Times. Among other things (all correct), Zeynep explains that “Facebook makes money, in other words, by profiling us and then selling our attention to advertisers, political actors and others. These are Facebook’s true customers, whom it works hard to please.” Irony Alert: the same is true for the Times, along with every other publication that lives off adtech: tracking-based advertising. These pubs don’t just open the kimonos of their readers. They bring people’s bare digital necks bared to vampires ravenous for the blood of personal data, all for the purpose of “interest-based” advertising.

Source: Doc Searls Weblog · Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing

I have no problem admitting that I’m a fanboy of Doc Searls. Search through the 12 years of archives here and you’ll find me quoting or sourcing him many times in posts regarding advertising throughout the years.

This is one of those seminal posts that I feel like I’ll come back to later and want to reflect upon giving newfound insight or knowledge. That often happens with posts from Searls.

What I’m particularly intrigued about here is the 1) action and 2) reaction notion of “NOW WHAT?”. It’s been no surprise to us that work in the marketing and advertising world what’s happened with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica over the last couple of weeks.

In fact, it’s incredibly easy and almost encouraged to use Facebook data to target people to an alarmingly intimate degree. It’s part of the game. I’ve always felt icky about the situation and I’ve more than once steered clients away from targeting users using FB Ad Manager for campaigns that would otherwise have been fine without that element.

It’s been an uneasy compromise for many of us, knowing what we give away in exchange for the enjoyment of friends and family pictures on Facebook. But this isn’t new. We just waited too long to do anything about it.

So where do we go now? I like Searls’ argument for a reader-first method of distinguishing rights and responsibilities for data on the web. Having worked in AdTech circles for 20 or so years now, I’m dubious about the execution or transformation that it will take to bring about such a revolution though.

Aside from the ethical dimension, there’s also the notion of democratization. Love it or hate it, AdTech and Facebook Ads and Twitter ads and affiliate marketing have leveled the playing field for many small businesses and nonprofits who could never have afforded agency rates as we knew them.

Perhaps that’s the lesson here for us all to learn. There needs to not only be profit involved in algorithmic marketing based on user profiles of demographic data, but also ethics.

We all need to do better with our marketing campaigns. However, the genie is out of the bottle to use another saying. There’s no going back to the quaint world of multi-million dollar Mad Men style creative brand advertisements dominating the industry.

I’d posit that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, online news and publishing and business and church and nonprofit sites should do better about monitoring the type of data they collect and pass on to 3rd parties either knowingly or unknowingly.

Churches and nonprofits especially need to heed this warning. Tracking is built into so many website builders and content management systems and email newsletter systems that they use. However, churches and nonprofits turn a blind eye to the reality that now faces them in an era where people are increasingly already turning away from their outreach.

It’s time to take the web (and those you’re looking to reach) seriously.

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.

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