SynopsisIntegrated platforms will offer more surveillance over the user’s purchase journey, allowing Facebook greater opportunities to intervene and convert abandoned carts into sales. However, users may not benefit from this unwarranted attention. Beyond the danger of an advertising monopoly lies the threat arising from stockpiled aggregate user data.
In an age when social media has become the opium of the masses, any revision to the terms that govern its use will, at least, create a storm in a teacup. WhatsApp, which originally promised a free and encrypted messaging service, announced that it will force users to either accept new data-sharing protocols or quit the service altogether on February 8.
Facebook, its parent company, now reserves the right to hoard and harvest data from WhatsApp, including location data, device ID, battery level, mobile network, mobile number, transaction data, group membership and participation, etc. While this could be a defensive move to limit future liabilities — in light of the sundry lawsuits being brought against it — it may really concern sustainable profits and continuing relevance. If so, the implications extend beyond the teacup.
When a patient who wants to give up smoking visits a hypnotist, there are four stages of persuasion. First, the hypnotist absorbs the patient’s attention, then bypasses the patient’s critical faculties of logic and reason, activates unconscious responses to stimuli, and finally ties those responses to favourable outcomes. Curiously, social media monetisation seems to follow the same stages with multiple participating beneficiaries.
Between 2012 and 2018, for instance, daily time spent on social media increased from 1.5 hours to nearly 2.5 hours, indicating a huge absorption of attention. Between 2016 and 2020, user engagement with fake news URLs (uniform resource locators) on Facebook tripled, indicating the bypassing of critical faculties.
And, while many Facebook users may think that their political actions and purchases are conscious and deliberate actions, it is worth remembering that the breadth of information social media platforms have at their disposal makes it easy to activate user preferences.
Linking those actions to a favourable outcome, however, is difficult, because not every beneficiary may be equally satisfied. After all, the digital advertising ecosystem is a collaboration between brands, advertisers, agencies, platforms and consumers, interwoven by a network of incentives that justifies exchanging user information to satisfy user needs. But how will users who make purchases benefit from the changed terms and conditions vis-à-vis brands and corporations?
Facebook claims that it will use and share WhatsApp data with other marketing partners to improve targeting and advertising relevance. By enhancing channel integration, Facebook will minimise loss of user transactions to alternate channels, while improving its own attribution score, increasing the credit they can take for a sale resulting from an advertising placement. This will increase their credibility to merchants and advertisers who desire more captive audiences.
Integrated platforms will offer more surveillance over the user’s purchase journey, allowing Facebook greater opportunities to intervene and convert abandoned carts into sales. However, users may not benefit from this unwarranted attention. Beyond the danger of an advertising monopoly lies the threat arising from stockpiled aggregate user data. Since the new terms do not specify sharing arrangements, or time boundaries for internal storage, these surveillance systems can easily furnish electronically stored information to governments for purposes of national security or to courts for legal procedures.
Users often cannot visualise how these aspects of aggregation can affect the inferences analysts draw from apparently trivial user data. Comparison to millions of other users can identify a user’s traits, temporal trends of his or her posts. Purchase patterns can reveal emotional and other triggers. And enrichment of user data from multiple channels such as location, or purchases on other platforms can reveal underlying motivations.
Depending on who is utilising this information, users can be identified based on their social and biological profiles, exposing their vulnerabilities and curbing their freedoms, a far cry from guaranteed civil liberties.
Not only can the last order you placed with your pharmacy on WhatsApp trigger a slew of ads on Facebook for wellness products, but your presence at a site of political protest (tracked by geographic location) that turned violent can also have legal consequences. What’s next? If consumers overwhelmingly reject the new terms, Facebook may relent and re-establish the status quo. If, however, the vast majority of consumers don’t abandon WhatsApp, Facebook may seek further permissions that violate personal privacy — like the right to read messages, or to implant ambient sound software that can listen to conversations. Profitability often leaves enterprises no choice.
After all, a hypnotist that offers to help you quit smoking for free, may only be trying to hook you on to electronic cigarettes. Same drug.
Tankha is former head, Citi Merchant Services, US, and Banerjee is professor of marketing, University of Michigan, US