The unfolding Cambridge Analytica exposé means criticism of Facebook is currently high in the public consciousness, but Facebook has long been the target of mounting pressure and scrutiny for both advertisers and legislators alike.
Just last month a German court found that Facebook had breached privacy laws, in 2015 Facebook became embroiled in a dispute over net neutrality with Indian regulators, and within the advertising industry there have been numerous scandals from accusations of exponential price increases, to Facebook artificially inflating ad reach and the volume of video views. Essentially Facebook is coming under pressure from every angle; an unusual triage of public outcry, political scrutiny, and mounting anger from ‘the money’ (advertisers).
Given this climate, it is worth thinking about what this means both in terms of the legislative, commercial and public pressures likely to alter how Facebook operates, and in terms of the ethical implications for Labour’s digital strategy.
One of the many signatures of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is talking tough about taking on the right-wing press and a refusal to court them for favourable coverage. Instead of futile attempts to win the air campaign in hostile press publications, the party has increasingly shifted to a social media based strategy that allows Labour to bypass traditional media and reach voters directly. So far it has been very successful in this strategy, running a sophisticated social media campaign in the 2017 general election campaign. A big part of what made this strategy viable depended on Facebook.
Leaving aside the deeply unethical data policies for which Facebook is currently coming under fire, how do we reconcile talking tough on media barons in tax exile whilst pumping £1.2m over a matter of weeks into a corporation that paid less tax than HMRC spent on Facebook ads telling people to pay their taxes?
Worse still, how sustainable is it to bank so much of our media strategy on a platform whose algorithms may change at any moment? Facebook changes the formulas that control what content is prioritised in people’s newsfeeds all the time. Historically many of these changes have had make or break impacts on businesses and publishers.
How sure are we that Facebook will continue to permit algorithms that are currently favourable to Labour whilst we talk tough on corporate tax evasion? How can Labour argue for the regulatory changes it must to make political advertising fit for the digital age, whilst being so dependent on the benevolence of this corporate giant? Will our dependency on the platform subtly shape the way we frame policy on these matters, in the same way dependency on the likes of the Sun influenced framing in the Blair years?
There are other external threats that could undermine Labour’s dependency on Facebook. Given the concern around Cambridge Anayltica, ‘fake news’ and revelations of electoral interference by foreign actors, we may well find that by 2022 political advertising online is subject to a whole new set of regulations.
We already know that from May 25th, new EU data regulation (GDPR) will come into force, radically altering the legislative framework for how advertisers (including the Labour Party) will be able to use data online on platforms like Facebook. The sophisticated Facebook campaign we ran in 2017, showing voters highly targeted messaging designed to resonate with their specific concerns, may very well not be possible in five years time.
Labour’s digital campaigns have made leaps and bounds in the last few years, and 2017 proved to the sceptics that there are viable ways to run a campaign and reach voters outside of traditional media. But to truly stay on the cutting edge of digital campaigning Labour must be able to adapt to a digital landscape that is about to drastically change.
In the ever changing world of digital advertising, you must sometimes be ready to throw out hitherto successful strategies. Labour must start preparing itself for an era of campaigning where Facebook may no longer be a viable option.
Rachael Ward is a Labour activist working in digital media.