Kirsty Marrins: How do you solve a problem like Facebook?

Not by leaving it, writes our digital columnist

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

Over the years, Facebook has become Marmite: you either love it or hate it. The reality, for those of us who work in digital, is that Facebook remains the dominant platform for the audiences we are trying to reach – we need to be on there to continue to understand how it works and so that we remain part of the conversation with our charities’ supporters. With more than two billion active users, it’s a platform that charities can’t ignore. But at what point do we question its ethics?

Recent revelations have forced us to re-evaluate our relationship with this behemoth, and not just our personal relationship but that of our supporters too. Understandably, when it came to light that Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data from 87 million Facebook users to influence voters in the Brexit referendum and then the 2016 US presidential election, people were angry.

Very quickly #DeleteFacebook started trending on Twitter and #BoycottFacebook gained traction too, but the answer isn’t to leave the platform. Some people quickly deleted their accounts (I know of only one person, personally, who did this), but anyone who chose to abandon ship wouldn't have made even the tiniest dent in its user numbers. And let’s not forget that Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram too, making it a true giant in the social arena. In fact, in Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the US Congress he was asked if Facebook was a monopoly – his failure to answer adequately suggests that it is. Think about it, just who are Facebook’s competitors?

Writing for Charity Digital News on how the third sector should respond to the Cambridge Analytica data breach, Mike Buonaiuto, executive director of the social change company Shape History, said: "The answer is not to abandon Facebook, but rather to put pressure on the tech giant as a united sector, and also join hands with our private sector and public sector partners too. The recent pressure from both sides of the pond from the UK government, the USA Federal Trade Commission and music company Sonos, continues to keep the conversation current and therefore present in the hearts and minds of Facebook’s global user-base – piercing a hole in the company’s bottom-line."

I agree with Mike in principle, but I don’t believe a united front from our sector would really work. Why? Because we simply don’t spend enough money.

Let’s be honest, Facebook is not a friend to charities. It might have introduced Facebook Donate to allow people to donate directly to charities or set up fundraisers, but don’t be fooled that this isn’t motivated by money – or data. Currently it isn't charging charities transaction fees, but of course this will change. It has a shiny microsite, Charities on Facebook, where you can "learn the basics, raise awareness, activate supporters and raise funds", and of course there’s a whole page dedicated to "reaching new people with ads". If Facebook were truly a friend to charities, it would offer charities ad grants, just as Google does with Google Adwords. Facebook wants the 1.5 million charities on its platform to connect people to their causes, but without spending money on ads it has made it very difficult to do this.

To truly hit Facebook where it hurts, advertisers need to put on the pressure. It’s hard money – rather than users deleting their profiles – that will force Facebook to review its policies and make changes. The ISBA, a trade body that represents the British advertisers, met Facebook at the end of March to understand the scope of the breach and to learn what steps it would be taking to address the concerns of both the public and advertisers. For now, the ISBA is satisfied with the steps that the platform is taking.  But this is not the only challenge Facebook is facing from advertising giants. In February, Unilever threatened to withdraw advertising if Facebook didn’t do more to tackle extremist and illegal content on its platform. It’s more bold action like this that will force Facebook to make real change. For too long, Facebook has gone unchecked.

So I am recommending that charities remain on Facebook for now, but be mindful of their content. Everything you do on the platform should communicate value and be used to bring people closer to your cause, but not at an ethical cost.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant and a trustee of the Small Charities Coalition

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