“Mark spies on me”: how online advertising personalization has become a reputation problem for Facebook

Your past and privacy failures no longer give you a very solid reputational foundation

A few days ago, a friend sent a photo of a Philadelphia cheese tub to a WhatsApp group. She had bought it without looking at it and was amused when she got home to discover that she was linked to a campaign that includes the name of cities on her packaging and had touched the one where she lives.

A few days later, scrolling on Instagram, she saw an ad for the same cheese. “I send the photo and now Instagram puts this publication on me,” she told us in the same group. She had also served him a campaign for the same brand of sneakers that she had been seeing in stores and of which she had sent another photo by courier.

Everything has a feasible rational explanation. It is to be expected that Philadelphia is, for example, doing a massive advertising campaign in parallel to the launch of its packaging action. However, consumers feel a mistrust bias towards online advertising and excessive personalization or being too good at targeting scares.

The Instagram cheese and slippers led to one of those half-joking, half-serious conversations about invasiveness, privacy, and the idea of ​​”Mark spying on me.” Mark is, of course, Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and who netizens cannot help but visualize as some kind of operetta villain.

Obviously, the manager will not be in his house watching an infinite scroll of photos and messages from his users to serve them the most successful publicity, while he laughs like a cartoon villain. In this case, reality hardly matters. The reputational damage has already been done.

WhatsApp spies on you! (or not)
This week’s headlines from the American tech press seemed, in fact, created to give arguments to my friend and to Zuckerberg’s live-spy jokes. Although Facebook ensures that no one can read the messages that its users exchange on WhatsApp, the reality is very different.

An investigation by ProPublica has confirmed that Facebook has more than a thousand outsourced workers in Austin, Dublin and Singapore who have access to WhatsApp content: they are the ones who analyze the content that has been marked by an algorithm as problematic.

Facebook has pointed out that these personnel access content that other users have marked as abusive and that their moderators cannot read messages or listen to WhatsApp calls, because that content is encrypted. The contents must be, therefore, explained, shared with them by a user.

But as much as Facebook qualifies, the damage has been done: the headlines have already proclaimed that yes, WhatsApp spies on you.

It does not matter if it is a lie: it is a reputation problem
And here the same thing happens that happens with the idea that your smartphone listens to you to serve you advertising later: companies deny it, but the resentment is generalized. The arguments of the companies are absolutely logical and coherent and the explanations of why you see those ads rational (they simply do their job very well with the data they have, without the need to spy on you).

On many occasions, the industry itself has pointed out that this massive espionage would be unsustainable from a technical point of view. It doesn’t matter: the theories are there and consumers believe it at certain levels. That is why it is already a problem for the advertising industry: personalization and excess efficiency have led to a problem of loss of trust and reputation.

That is also what happens to Facebook as a giant. If you add to that that Facebook already has reputational damage due to real problems in previous privacy issues, the circle is closed. Consumers are already wary by default, and these ideas only sink your corporate reputation a little further.

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