In what was an unusual scene, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO & Founder of Facebook, testified before almost half the Senate in a joint committee hearing about the data breach scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The recent scandal surrounding the unauthorized harvesting of Facebook Users’ data by Cambridge Analytica has generated a lot of conversation about the regulation of social media, and even the perennial discussion of Facebook’s demise.
However, despite the current negative attention and threat of regulation and negative attention, Facebook will continue to be the dominant social media platform for the foreseeable future, especially for non-profits and associations. It is also unlikely that Facebook will encounter any new regulatory regime for several reasons such as Congressional expertise, digital trends, and some modest reforms at Facebook.
Unlike telecommunications, finance, or healthcare, social media policy is a relatively new field. Aside from the fact that not a single U.S. Senator was born within the “Millennium Generation,” there is also a dearth of policy expertise in this area. This may change over time, as scholars and experts examine the effects of social media, how it works and most importantly, why it works. Until that time, there will be very few options presented to Congress that will have sufficient weight for it to create a new regulatory regime.
Indeed during hearing, many Senators had difficulty following up on their own questions, once they had passed the prepared remarks their staff had written. As many non-profits and associations know, policy takes a long time to work its way through Congress even when it is armed with a plethora of information and policy proposals.
There is also little evidence that this scandal will change behaviors, especially amongst younger and older audiences, which are the most important and lucrative audiences respectively. Millennials are coming of age in a time when privacy is no longer a given and data breaches are becoming increasingly common. For Millennials, it’s a given that they can keep up with friends who live across the globe.
This is not the case for seniors who have more disposable income and whom are first entering the online shopping arena. For seniors, Facebook has brought ‘back to life’ old friends, acquaintances, and coworkers whom they had lost touch with over the years. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “Facebook resurrection effect” and is a lucrative area for advertisers and non-profit campaigns. For non-profits looking to maximize on their targeted ads strategy to both retain older audiences and attract new ones, it’s clear then that Facebook will still be the dominant medium.
Though Facebook is not immune to public opinion. It seems that a consensus is being reached at Facebook where it will undertake the minimum in terms of reforms (as sort of a mea culpa) by embracing the Honest Ads Act for all political ads (the Honest Ads Act requires that sponsors of political ads identify themselves somewhere on the ad) and added scrutiny of all advertisements. The consequences of this will be felt greater in the electoral politics field than for the few 501 C 4 organizations that engage in limited political campaigns. However even then, the affects and new ‘regulatory burden’ are minimal for Facebook and compliance for non-profits and associations.
For those of us who engage in digital advocacy, we have come to learn to expect the unexpected and adapt as things change. Facebook has certainly changed significantly since it was first launched in a college dorm and catered exclusively to ivy league college students. Facebook’s current model where users have free access in exchange for their data, has been so far astoundingly successful, and there is little incentive for it to change that fundamental bargain. Therefore barring some massive disruption in the social media world, there is little on the horizon that would foretell the end of its dominance in the social media world, and its central place in non-profit campaigns and digital strategy.