The revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s unethical practice of harvesting 50 million Facebook profiles was a significant data breach. It has the potential to affect the business models of social networks, and consequently the capabilities of social media listening companies.

Facebook has hastily reacted to the news, making two significant changes in the last couple of weeks:

1. They have shut down their third-party data providers like Experian and Acxiom for advertising targeting. This restricts advertiser’s targeting capabilities (for instance, if I wanted to investigate the behaviours of an audience).

2. Instagram (owned by Facebook) has removed the capability for some developers to access data on their platform. Those who still have access face significant rate restrictions.

It hasn’t all been reactive though.

At the end of 2017 Facebook shut down its APIs that allowed social listening partners to access anonymised and aggregated data. Working through popular social listening tools, this capability gave companies overall demographics, top trending topics, and sentiment from Facebook. Insights that informed their integrated communications strategies. It had users’ privacy in mind, as individual private posts couldn’t be seen, just the aggregated overall results. However, it was shut down, perhaps in a proactive effort to better manage the Cambridge Analytica story before it broke?

Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash

Facebook is a social media goliath with 2.1 billion users. Like Wikipedia, it holds an immense amount of data that aids brands to advertise and monitor mentions online. As concerns of how our personal data is being used by social networks escalates, further restrictions will inevitably appear. This already means advertising campaigns on Facebook won’t be as targeted (therefore more expensive and less-effective in the short-term) and social listening companies will get a reduced picture of mentions across social media.

The untold story of social media listening in the public relations industry is that Twitter dominates the space. Regardless of the social listening tool you use, in my experience 80% of the data is fed by Twitter. Knowing this, means Twitter’s political and societal leanings can be considered in research. It’s a mistake to think any tool or person can gain a full-picture of social media activity using a single third-party tool.

So, what happens if Twitter dies tomorrow? It’s not too difficult to picture. Whilst Twitter announced its first ever profit in February 2018, keeping user growth hasn’t been easy. It’s a go-to resource as a customer services tool, certainly the media industry in general, but monetising the platform through advertising and data sharing has been a difficult journey.

If Twitter shut down tomorrow, then many social listening companies would struggle negotiating their high subscription fees. The bulk of online mentions would come from forums and blogs, essentially the realm of advanced ‘traditional’ media monitoring. On Facebook, only publicly posted content (such as on public pages) would be discoverable and Instagram only possible if you’re a selected data partner.

Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

Considering the popularity of walled-garden social networks such as SnapChat and WhatsApp, or the fact Microsoft has yet to introduce data access for LinkedIn, the monitoring market appears to be becoming increasingly fragmented across a range of tools. You either access directly on the social networks themselves, use a variety of third-party tools, or potentially don’t have access at all.

As noted in MoneyWeek, there is a similarity between how our data is monetised by social networks and how financial advisers used to claim their management commission; essentially social networks, like financial services, need to be more transparent. Nobody can be expected to read the entire 14,000+ word terms and conditions of Facebook when signing up for an account (especially because it’s also a document that links to many other places), let alone keep track of interim adjustments.

As Facebook continues to react to the Cambridge Analytica story, more restrictions are likely to appear. However, this could also come with better regulation around how data our data is managed. Without a doubt, social media data is a valuable resource and if all social networks can offer transparency beyond obscure T&Cs and data access that respects individual privacy, this may be the beginning of a bright future for social listening.

The aftermath of Cambridge Analytica could lead to a more mainstream understanding of social media listening. Otherwise it could further fragment the market, making it harder for companies to gather insights about their stakeholders online.

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