‘A power play’: Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica cleanup sweeps up marketing tech

Emails started flooding in on March 28. Brands and influencers were locked out of a tool they routinely relied on for years to access their audience data on Instagram. They messaged the platform’s team asking what was wrong.

The answer was unclear, at the time. The founder and one of the concerned clients told Digiday that thoughts came back to a March 17 exposé on Cambridge Analytica. But the malfunctioning of third-party software companies, which were not maliciously stealing user data, was unexpected.

“There was zero communication. Apps just stopped working,” said the founder of the marketing tech company, who requested anonymity due to privacy around trying to sell or pivot the startup in the wake of that day.

While drastic changes to platforms are nothing new — especially between Facebook and publishers — 2018 brought cataclysmic change that brought an end to some businesses or, at least, operational changes. Software companies that thrived off of analyzing data via Facebook’s API networks couldn’t operate with the restrictions Facebook made after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

“I don’t think data privacy and security is going to fall off the map because Cambridge Analytica is no longer in the headlines. I think the ways big brands are treating data is only going to become increasingly important. The currency today is data more than dollars,” said Lou Jordano, chief marketing officer at analytics company Crimson Hexagon.

On April 4, when Facebook announced it sped up the shutdown of Instagram’s API, some executives at marketing companies said they foresaw the impact to come when the Cambridge Analytica exposé had published. Other marketers were alarmed when Facebook formally emailed partners in April.

“When I heard the news, I immediately called in the whole executive team to talk how this will affect us. It was absolutely clear that Facebook and its subsidiary company Instagram will make drastic changes due to the political pressure. The only thing that surprised us how quickly it happened,” said Robert Levenhagen, CEO of influencer marketing platform InfluencerDB.

Not every move was surprising. Instagram announced in January that it would phase out the Instagram API platform and introduce the new Graph API. But several marketers told Digiday they were under the impression that it would simply require influencers to create a business account on Instagram, not completely eliminate the ability to get profile information for any Instagram account.

“It happened real fast and Instagram had really nothing to do with the [Cambridge Analytica] scandal so one thinks it was more of a power play and consolidation of power opportunity,” said the founder of the pivoting startup.

Some partners said they were frustrated by the lack of communication. A Facebook spokesperson told Digiday that the changes to the APIs were each a part of Facebook’s promise after the Cambridge Analytica scandal to prevent that issue from happening again and keep user data secure.

“It really was a perfect storm of data privacy in the public realm. [Zuckerberg] was testifying in the U.S., then UK, GDPR, all happening in the same moment in time,” Jordano said. “Those huge networks are under lots of pressure. They’re a multi-headed hydra.”

In line with the idea that Facebook is powerful, marketers said they have made sure to never rely on one API or one dataset. Crimson Hexagon provides insights from social listening, but it’s not solely reliant on Facebook posts or on private data. Influencer marketing company indaHash is known for its work with Instagram, but it has never relied on real-time calls for data via Instagram’s now-defunct API.

Beyond the Instagram API, Facebook instituted changes to access to data from the main social network. For example, Facebook would not allow just any app developer to access a user’s birthday or their current job.

“We haven’t lost a ton of key information,” said Alex Salvatore, cofounder and CTO of Beam, a social impact app. “We’ve just had to tighten up the way we’re requesting and be a little bit more careful. [Facebook wants] to guard against somebody making a calculator app and, oh, we know your political views.” 

The fallout from Cambridge Analytica may have crushed some startups, including Cambridge Analytica, but Facebook’s relationship with marketers is still strong. Several marketers told Digiday that they didn’t see any pause in ad dollars going to Facebook over the last three months. 

“We look at the whole Cambridge Analytica thing as being disappointing but a healthy reminder of private data staying private. If nothing else, this story has really shined a light at how people value their private data and how carefully it should be treated,” Jordano said.

The founder exploring a business pivot said, “Facebook and Instagram just built a 50-foot wall and moat around their business with the move. No idea what will happen and if more APIs get killed. but I think long term people stop building real businesses on Facebook and Instagram APIs.” 


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