How Facebook’s big data could be harnessed for good

The Cambridge Analytica scandal shouldn’t blind us to the possibility of using the platform to promote healthy living. By David Burrows.

A friend messaged me last week. “Feeling rather smug that my wife found an email from me many years ago where I stated that I’d never join Facebook given the threat of data harvesting.” Putting aside the irony that he’d written via WhatsApp (owner, Facebook) it prompted me to wonder what might have been: why couldn’t tech companies have used all that data many of us have willingly (or sometimes unwittingly) given up for a purpose other than power and profit? As someone with an interest in food policy, I’m thinking of the opportunities to tackle obesity, for example.

But first a recap. Facebook is mired in the sticky Cambridge Analytica scandal: the personal data of about 50 million Americans having been harvested from the social networking site and “improperly shared” with the political consultancy which, it is alleged, could have been used to influence the 2016 US presidential election. To bring matters closer to home, Dominic Cummings, the director of Vote Leave, has also been forced to deny allegations of links between his campaign and Cambridge Analytica.

It is a sordid tale.

If data has been collected in an unauthorised way (something the authorities are trying to establish) and then used to sway voters, this could certainly spell the end for Facebook. But the fallout could be much, much wider. “This is the story we have been waiting for so people will pay attention not just to Facebook but the entire surveillance economy,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

From the outside these are platforms for posting holiday pics, liking a friend’s engagement or arranging to meet family for a pizza. But look under the hood and there is enough data to “get almost anyone to do almost anything”, as Arwa Mahdawi put it in the Guardian (the paper that helped blow the story open). Are they really that powerful?

Quite possibly. Supermarkets have huge amounts of information telling them what people buy, when, how much, how often and so on. Rub that together with information from social media and they can begin to understand why people buy what they do. Algorithms are like alchemy to marketers, allowing them to personalise the internet to an individual’s tastes and needs.

From the research I’ve seen, attitudes to this kind of insight are pretty evenly split: some people think it’s cool because it makes their lives easier, but others feel it is far too creepy. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps didn’t envisage just how ready we were to pull down our shorts: he reportedly referred to his Harvard friends who handed over personal information when he was building the site as “dumb fucks” for trusting him.

But the fallout from the current scandal is that a lot of this data is being used for profit rather than purpose. Think about food: brands have managed to use data in order to encourage people to eat more sugar (and fat and salt) – and from a very early age. Research by the Irish Heart Foundation, published in June 2016, found that children were being targeted online with “subtle, sophisticated and surreptitious methods” in an environment where parents “don’t know what’s going on”. And it gets worse. “In the digital world, [food companies] can identify those who are most reactive to food and drink marketing and thus target the most vulnerable children,” warned the lead researcher, Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden.

The study included some of the first research into how top brands were using Facebook to market their products. They found that all the food and drink brand pages on the site with the greatest reach among 13- and 14-year-olds in Ireland were for brands that feature products high in fat, salt or sugar. However, it was done in such a way as to sidestep regulations: “Over a quarter of the 354 brand posts analysed did not show food, packaging or a brand logo, indicating a shift to more subtle promotional strategies that are less easily identified as advertising.”

This raises the obvious question: with one in three British teenagers overweight or obese (and spending countless hours in front of screens every day), how are these junk-food brands allowed to get away with it?

Perhaps in future they won’t – the government is reportedly reforming the childhood obesity plan and must surely take another look at advertising restrictions. However, overweight or obese people might also start to sue fast-food brands. Dan Crossley from the Food Ethics Council has warned data which tracks people’s food purchasing behaviour and personal health could, for example, be used in class action lawsuits against food companies that have knowingly sold “bad” food and contributed to diet-related diseases. But why not use all this behavioural data for good?

Facebook boasts that its ads increase target audience reach, ad memorability, brand linkage and likeability compared with television alone. Facebook ads have also been shown to generate nearly triple the ad recall compared with control groups, with handsome returns on investment for food and drink brands. Kantar has previously calculated that for a Coca-Cola campaign in France, Facebook accounted for 2% of marketing cost but 27% of incremental sales; figures that the five-a-day campaign can only dream of.

Work is under way on how to harvest data and nudge people to eat more healthily. The smart food intake project at Wageningen University in Holland, for example, is working with the likes of FrieslandCampina, Unilever, Philips and Danone to collect reliable data on food intake and the reasons why people choose the food they do. For example, why does one person have an apple for their afternoon snack, while someone else has a slice of pizza?

“Where you are, who you are with, how you are feeling … it all makes a difference,” explains Muriel Verain, a consumer scientist at the university. “But we still don’t know enough about the exact relationship between food choices and reasons behind them in various contexts.”

Verain and her colleagues are therefore designing an app to monitor people’s consumption in context. They’ll be able to understand why someone eats what they do. Why does one person always opt for a healthy snack while someone else chooses a snack that often contains too much fat, salt or sugar? How do family or friends influence eating habits? And what role do our physical surroundings play? They also want to understand data could be compared across Europe and, of course, how to ensure that consumers are cool with the whole thing rather than creeped out.

“If we know the context behind food choices, we can focus our work much more accurately on sustainable and healthy products that fit within that context,” says Verain. “Food companies can then better relate to their consumers’ needs when it comes to their marketing.”

Could Facebook et al be using their all-seeing eyes to encourage people to eat healthy, sustainable food? Undoubtedly.

In 2013, researchers from Boston children’s hospital in the US managed to connect the dots between Facebook interests and obesity. They found that in places where there were lots of “likes” for healthy activities, obesity rates were lower, while in areas where everyone was giving the Facebook “thumbs up” to TV shows people were generally fatter.

"Online social networks like Facebook represent a new high-value, low-cost data stream for looking at health at a population level," said John Brownstein, one of the team involved in the study. "The tight correlation between Facebook users' interests and obesity data suggest that this kind of social network analysis could help generate real-time estimates of obesity levels in an area, help target public health campaigns that would promote healthy behaviour change, and assess the success of those campaigns."

There is a lot not to like about Facebook and how it has worked with brands (and allegedly politicians) to date. I wonder, however, if in trying to kill off the platform we will end up losing a potentially invaluable tool to help tackle some of the most pressing (and expensive) issues facing society, including obesity. We could even end up demonising data completely; then we would certainly be dumb fucks.

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