Oh, Facebook. What are we going to do with you?
In the past two years alone, we've learned that the network was weaponized by foreign actors to spread misinformation in an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. We've learned that personal user information was improperly harvested by an voter profiling firm. And, last month, we learned that hackers used a site vulnerability to scrape the personal details of 30 million users.
That doesn't even cover everything.
While these events, on the surface, most directly impact consumers -- marketers and small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) are also feeling their overall effects.
And yet, many Facebook users, marketers, and SMBs have found it so very, very hard to leave the site.
This phenomenon has been measured before in some of our research, which month-over-month reflects a general sentiment among users to stick with Facebook, despite its many issues.
But we wanted to take a closer look -- at the impact on marketers and SMBs, at a zoomed-in perspective of user sentiment, at the "why" behind the overall reluctance to quit Facebook altogether, and what it might take for people to finally leave.
To get to the bottom of these various pieces of one big, social puzzle, we ran some more surveys, and discussed the results with Likeable Media CEO Carrie Kerpen.
Here's what we found.
The Impact on Marketers and SMBs
Facebook has made a number changes to its site and platform in response to the issues it's experienced over the past two years.
To help curtail the spread of misinformation, for example, it began this spring requiring labels for all political ads and content -- like candidates running for an elected office, or issues that frequently arise during elections.
It also began applying similar labels to news items, indicating where and how many times a story (from that publisher) has been shared on Facebook, as well as a "More From This Publisher" feature.
While the company's goals might include regaining or improving user trust, the outcome has arguably been felt the most by marketers and SMBs. That's compounded by a major January News Feed algorithm change, which prioritized content from users' friends and family -- leading to a drop of up to 50% in business Page engagement for certain categories.
But consider another extension of Facebook's content-labeling requirement, which applies to media companies. In addition to labeling political or issue-based ads as such, the company also began requiring the same labels be placed on promoted news stories about political topics. In other words, a newspaper's story about an election, if promoted or boosted, would be labeled as a political ad.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), these requirements have caused a number of smaller publishers to curb their use of Facebook's publisher tools, or in some cases, stop promoting their content on the site completely. It shares the story of the Pennsylvania newspaper Observer-Reporter, whose promotion of many articles were completely denied by Facebook -- due to their alleged "political" nature -- much of the time without any explanation.
It begs the question: What's the value tradeoff for marketers and SMBs? And furthermore, with all the costs involved with these changes -- will they even work?
That's where the public perception comes in.
The Facebook Trust Barometer: Where Do Users Stand?
Overall User Trust in and Allegiance to Facebook
First, we wanted to measure broad, recent trust levels in Facebook. Earlier this week, we asked 828 internet users across the U.S., UK, and Canada: Over the past week, how would you measure your overall trust in Facebook?
Nearly 40% of respondents indicated that their trust in the site hadn't changed at all -- even after Facebook recently revealed the extent of the data obtained by hackers in the site's September data breach (which, it turns out, includes recent Facebook search queries and check-in locations).
But we wanted to see what would happen if we added more context to the question -- and what actions people said they would take in response to that information. So, we asked another 848 internet users across the same region: Facebook disclosed that in a recent data breach, personal details of 14 million users -- like their 15 most recent searches and the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in -- were scraped by hackers. Does this affect how you'll use the site going forward?
Looking at these results, the unwillingness to leave Facebook, even after all is said and done, could be chalked up to awareness. With the additional context, we saw slightly more respondents indicating a possible deterioration in trust in Facebook -- with over a quarter saying that the data attack was enough to make them use the site less.
Still, most users -- over a third -- said that it wasn't enough to make them leave the site entirely.
Confidence in Efforts to Curb Election Meddling
Facebook has made a number of efforts to stop the weaponization of its site to influence elections -- ranging from the aforementioned content labels, to new rules prohibiting posts that aim to suppress voters.
The company has also publicized its efforts to squash election interference, perhaps with the intention of convincing users and lawmakers alike how seriously it's taking the issue -- and even recently invited journalists into its "election war room" to see what that day-to-day work looks like.
Facebook showed off its “election war room” yesterday - the office where it’ll monitor and respond to possible election interference efforts leading up to the midterms.— Kurt Wagner (@KurtWagner8) October 18, 2018
Here’s what it looks like. pic.twitter.com/sGiiJgA4xg
But we wanted to know how confident the public is in Facebook's efforts to stop election interference, including some of the loopholes that have been found in them. A recent New York Times story found, for example, that political ads can still be somewhat anonymous, thanks to a technicality that allows ad buyers to write anything in the “paid for by” field.
That is one hell of a loophole you left there, Facebook. By @kevinroose https://t.co/fMwtcqforP pic.twitter.com/pu6khp7f0I— Heather Kelly (@heatherkelly) October 17, 2018
We asked another 837 people across the U.S., UK, and Canada: Do you think the actions Facebook is taking to prevent efforts to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections will work?
The results didn't indicate resounding user confidence in Facebook's efforts to curb election meddling -- while about 44% say that they might work to some extent, over a third don't believe they'll be effective at all.
What Will It Take Us to Finally Leave Facebook?
To answer the above question, I needed to call in an expert: Likeable Media CEO Carrie Kerpen.
When it comes to the tendency of users to stick with Facebook in the face of ongoing controversy, it seems to be a combination of awareness and trade-offs. We've discussed the latter before, when HubSpot VP of Marketing Meghan Keaney Anderson pointed to the lack of a widespread replacement for Facebook's ability to keep users connected to family, friends, and news.
Kerpen agrees that this phenomenon of connectedness does underscore the unwillingness among users to delete their Facebook accounts for good.
"Your Grandma is likely not on Twitter, but she's on Facebook now," Kerpen says, pointing to Facebook's diversified user base among different populations. "It's easy to use Facebook, every one is on it, and it's widely adopted."
Then, there's the awareness aspect. Even when people do know about Facebook's various issues, and think they understand them, it's difficult for most users to tangibly experience the consequences of them.
"Issues are talked about, but rarely felt. You hear about 'the Russians,' but have you ever [directly] felt the impact of that?" asks Kerpen. "Chances are, if you've been impacted, you don't realize it. Until people feel tangible effects of privacy breaches, they won't be bothered by them."
What, then, will it take for people to leave the site? According to Kerpen, one of two things need to happen.
In one scenario, "Facebook becomes less relevant and necessary to [users'] lives," she says. "That's unlikely, unless another network is able to have the widespread reach that Facebook has achieved."
If that happens, the impacts and awareness among users will have to become more tangible.
"The privacy breaches ... may have impacted elections, for instance, but until a user has to call their credit card company and dispute charges, it really doesn't feel like it impacts them on an individual level," Kerpen explains. "These breaches may have given companies data -- but until a user's private data is exposed in a way that impacts them directly, they won't care."
That signals some of the impact of these issues on marketers and SMBs. Take the earlier CJR piece, for example, which shares the stories of publishers whose brand engagement -- like visits to their sites -- have dropped over the past year as a result of Facebook's changes.
That's the type of case where the impact of what's taken place on Facebook over the past two years is tangibly experienced by -- and at the expense of -- those from whom Facebook earns the most revenue (read: advertisers).
And while the company has implied that it's willing to sacrifice income from promoted content and ads from the marketers and businesses using these tools, one might wonder at what point more of these professional users -- like some cited in the CJR story -- could begin to reconsider or reshape their use of Facebook.
"I think you'll see a temporary scale back from Facebook if these practices continue, but ultimately, brands follow what works," Kerpen explains. "Television was the top medium for advertisers for years, and there was no actual way to prove a direct correlation to sales. Facebook has both the broad reach that television did for content consumption, and the ability to directly correlate to action the way search does."
In any case, says Kerpen, the answer to the question of, "What will it take?" comes down to palpable, sustainable effects felt by all users of Facebook.
"When and if people feel individual pain," she says, "they'll care."