Is Facebook evil? Aren’t we all?

Last week was all about Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing. There’s no point in denying that Facebook gathers lots and lots of data about individual users. That being said, all kinds of companies and governmental organizations are more than willing to use that data to have successful Facebook campaigns. So, is Facebook evil for gathering that data? And if so, aren’t websites willing to give that information to Facebook not equally evil?

Regulation always lags behind

When radio first emerged, companies sponsored most of the programs. Programs were one big advertisement. We call it a soap opera because a large soap factory sponsored it! Gradually, broadcasters sold advertisements in blocks, during commercial breaks. While some countries have laws concerning advertisement and commercials, most countries have councils that provide guidelines on what is allowed in commercials and what not. Advertisers, media people, and audiences talk with each other and figure out what is allowed and what not. And I think that’s what we need to do with Facebook advertising as well. We need to think, talk and set up new rules for this advertising game. Together. 

What is a tracking pixel?
A tracking pixel is an invisible 1×1 pixel on a website that records the activities of visitors. This pixel collects data about the visitor and shares it with, for instance, Facebook or Google. Often, visitors aren’t aware that the pixel is collecting their information and therefore there is quite a bit of criticism on this way of retrieving data.

The responsibility of companies

Facebook does not force a tracking pixel on websites. Nor does Google. And yet, lots of websites have one of each. That’s a choice. I am not saying it’s a wrong choice per se; I’m just saying it is a choice. And I do think that companies should take some time to think about the consequences of that choice. Do you want to use data gathered from people that visit your website to retarget these people on Facebook? You can’t be sure what Facebook does with that data, but you are handing it over to them.

At Yoast, we did have a Facebook tracking pixel on our website for some time. We did little with it. It did not feel right. It felt as like we were following our audience — stalking them. We discussed the use of the tracking pixel in our company and decided to remove it. This was long before the Facebook hearing.

Ignorance is no excuse

 I am afraid lots of companies do not even know whether or not they have a tracking pixel. Marketing departments or agencies may have taken care of it without explaining how such a retargeting campaign works. I do think companies have a responsibility to know and to care. We are talking about collecting data on individuals; it’s valuable data of and about your visitors.

We should educate ourselves and our children. We all witness retargeting, so we should explain how it works. This is not rocket science. My 11-year old figured it out himself. He noticed advertising for the Fortnite computer game wasn’t on my Instagram timeline, while it appeared so very frequently on his. He wondered why. We should make a real effort to explain this stuff to children, to companies and governments. If people understand, we can have a meaningful conversation and raise the questions that matter.

Have the conversation

We have to raise ethical questions. What data are we allowed to collect from our audience? And with what purpose? Do we need to tell our audience about the tracking pixel on our website?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Different people will come up with different answers. That’s the beauty of ethical questions. I am no expert, but you should read Morton Rand-Hendriksen’s’ article on using ethics in web design if you’re interested in this kind of stuff.

The bottom line is, we all need to think about it. We all need to talk about it. And in the end, we need to come to some consensus together. We need to make — and abide by — rules or laws to deal with these kinds of things.

So.. let’s talk!

Read more: Social media for small business owners »

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37 Responses to Is Facebook evil? Aren’t we all?

  1. Phiroz
    Phiroz  • 6 years ago

    I do agree with this Tracking Pixel but upto what extent your personnel remain ethical is a long debate. As the datails, the emotions are attached with the sites like Facebook & so forth.

  2. Marieke van de Rakt

    Maybe I am naive, but I think that for the Netherlands, our government cannot do what it wants under any circumstances. I can imagine it’s different for other countries though. That makes any kind of regulation hard. It all stands or falls with making rules anyone (including governments) should obey.

  3. Marieke van de Rakt

    Thanks for your elaborate comment. Stuff to think about here. I do think you are right, but… :-)
    Our freemium-model is a bit of an exception here. You can use our free plugin and we’ll not collect or sell data about you. We will show you ads, but only of our own products and we don’t do any retargeting. We genuinely believe in making a good product for everyone. And, we sell enough of our premium product to give back to the WordPress community (at least 20% of our profits) and to keep developing our free plugin. Other freemium products have the same business model. This really works.

  4. Marieke van de Rakt

    I think you’re right. You don’t have a choice but to use Google or Facebook if you’re an online shop. I do think it’s important to keep having the discussion. I am not sure if anything will change (in the short term), but we should talk about it. And, considering the number of replies on this particular blog post, people have opinions — and rather articulate ones as well.

  5. Mohamed Elghdban
    Mohamed Elghdban  • 6 years ago

    I think what happened is far away from just the compromised data, it’s about honesty and trust, it seems Facebook has no red lines when it comes to enhance targeting, and the AI algorithms will make the situation more scarier.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      It does get scary, doesn’t it. We will see how this will evolve! Thanks for your comment

  6. Tony
    Tony  • 6 years ago

    The problem, as another commenter states, isn’t so much that someone might try to sell you something you might want based on info they have collected about you. As long as there’s full disclosure about what info they collect and exactly who they use it/who they let access it, that’s not so bad. The issue is that companies like facebook will sell it to absolutely anyone who wants to buy it, including governments. Frankly, I doubt governments need to pay for it. As a government, all they need to do is crook their finger, and poof, it’s in their possession. We can get our governments to pass all the regulatory measures we want, but a government is perfectly capable of breaking that regulation when it serves their purpose to do so. The problem with laws is that while the private sector’s behavior can become less troublesome through it, a government can still do whatever it wants under any circumstances. Even if a company like Facebook were not willing to hand over information to governments that have jurisdiction in the areas these companies target/serve, that would be irrelevant, since whatever a government wants a government gets. This side of the issue may have no remedy for the individual. We may, therefore, have no choice but to be content with a partial solution.

  7. Bill
    Bill  • 6 years ago

    What people fail to realize is that there is “No such thing as a free lunch”. While so many have trumpeted that the internet needs to be free, the harsh reality is that things cost money. If a website is NOT charging you for what they do, then you are the commodity they are trading in. To think otherwise is naive at best, negligent at worst.

  8.  • 6 years ago

    It’s not all as voluntary as this article suggests. Small, local shops can’t compete with online shops. Online shops basically have no choice but to heavily use Google and Facebook, because else competitors will leave them in the dust. Customers pretty much have no choice either but to use Google (because other search engines are often crap, because they don’t know any better and because it’s the default search engine on just about any system) and Facebook (because of peer pressure, shear size and winner-takes-it-all so everybody ends up using one social network). We’re basically holding each other hostage.

    We can pet each other on the back for how efficient this all is, but at the end of the day it’s ‘more efficient’ also means: Less local jobs, race to the bottom, winner-takes-it-all, often ending in monopolies and duopolies. It’s not just because of FB or the internet but they definitely add to globalization.

    And sure, you can see it coming and you can read the User Agreement and disagree with it, but you can’t stop it because the majority only thinks about ‘how much can I earn today’ and not about ‘what will we lose next year’. If you’re a teenager or twen today, not having a Facebook account and probably a few more social media is just not an option.

    I’m not a optimist or pessimist but I’m just being observant and realistic.

  9. Erik
    Erik  • 6 years ago

    Why not make a better statement and delete your FB page as well? :-)

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      I don’t think that will solve the problem :-). But I know people are doing that. A Dutch comedian made a Facebook-event to leave Facebook. Lots of people followed his example.

  10. Taisa-Designer
    Taisa-Designer  • 6 years ago

    Great article, and I agree with almost everything. With the question “Do we need to tell our audience about the tracking pixel on our website?” I already have the answer: Yes. With the new GDPR you MUST tell your users that kind of things and allow them to decide wheter they are ok with it or not… So, there it is. And, yes, I understand that people want to know how to get better to their potential customers… even little companies or freelancers… and everyday is more difficult. And, that facebook and other social networks now require that you pay for advertisement if you want to be seen… guides business people to Pixel and that kind of things… So… What I do not know also, is where is this going to lead us. Only that it is not going to be an easy way for newcomers.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      I am not much of a GDPR expert… but I also think you need to tell your audience if your collecting any kind of data…I agree with you that the internet is changing. And maybe it is getting harder to reach your audience online. That’s a thing all businesses face together. I am -however- optimistic (but I guess that’s just my nature). Thanks for your reply!

  11. David
    David  • 6 years ago

    This is not an argument about data collection. That battle is over – even if all the data collectors stopped tomorrow.
    The argument is about lies – about behavioural insight tacticians who ‘nudge’ us without an ethical social purpose; who tell lies to which they know their targets are susceptible.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      I agree with you that this is about behavioral insights as well. We need to have an ethical discussion about this. Great point!

  12. Dave
    Dave  • 6 years ago

    As marketers we tend to look the other way because Facebook and other services are willing to sell us the data so cheaply. Yes we all know they collect it and that isn’t a surprise. It’s what they do with it that is the problem. It’s not just what Facebook is saying it’ll take from you and do with your information, it’s all the things it’s not saying, and doing anyway because of the loopholes they create for themselves in their Terms of Service . Google is probably worse…

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      You’re totally right. It definitely isn’t Facebook. And I think it’s time marketeers stop looking the other way. Thank you for your input!

  13. Mani Teja
    Mani Teja  • 6 years ago

    Everyone knows that Facebook has our every single data, everyone acting like they just came to know now…

    • Tope Alabi
      Tope Alabi  • 6 years ago

      @mani teja, you’ve said it all.

      • Marieke van de Rakt

        I sort of agree… but some people -like my parents, my 11 year old son and probably many more- did not know. Children in the class of my son, nor the teacher understood about the tracking pixel. As a digital community (people who do understand) we kind of have a responsibility to tell them about these kinds of things.

  14. Stallone
    Stallone  • 6 years ago

    This is an inevitable future though, you can’t stop the accumulation of data on individuals to provide services. As a TED talker once said…”if you think the last 10 days of the internet was awesome, you have no idea what the next 10 years will be..and the sacrifice everyone will have to make, is their privacy.”

    It rings so true, without the information, personalisation and marketing of content can’t be done. Even the monitoring of criminal activity to reduce it.

    The point i’m making is that, this is the world going forward. You see the courts trying to regulate a private company like Facebook, yet the same government was secretly recording all information on individuals, which got exposed via Edward Snowden. What does this mean? Just because a private company does it, it’s a no no?

    If you look at this from a step back, this is solely the beginning. Everything about an individual will be recorded and what’s interesting is how the future generation will see it as a norm as they wouldn’t have experienced a life without it.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      Your views on data collection and where it’s going is a bit darker than my view is. I do like your way of reasoning though. I think governments (in Europe at least) are trying to regulate things. I don’t know to what extent they will succeed in that and to what extent they will be able to reinforce laws. Development in the data-collection/ IT are going so very fast that laws tend to be outdated before they are really put into action. It is a hard topic, this one. Thank you so much for your input!

      • Stallone
        Stallone  • 6 years ago

        Thanks for writing about it!

    • Taisa-Designer
      Taisa-Designer  • 6 years ago

      You are right. The cost of what internet offers is our privacy, but it offers us a lot. They can give you far better service if they know you, and in some ways, that can be a win-win. (Before, you went to the same store or restaurant because they knew you and knew what you liked and how you liked it… The classic scene in movies saying “the same as always” to the barman. ;)

      I always said, I have nothing to hide, so in this part, I don’t care very much. About what I am always a little concerned is security (what really “bad” people could do with my information, I don’t really care if they try to sell me something they now I could want).

      • Stallone
        Stallone  • 6 years ago

        I’ve thought about this, the whole “I have nothing to hide, so go ahead and take my data to offer me more personalised data.”

        The issue I have is someone else acquiring my loved ones data. If I see my child’s photos being used by others, or my loved ones data being taken and that would annoy me.

        I personally don’t think you can control data, it is no different to thoughts now. The digital age does not escape the laws of ying and yang in my opinion, if good emerges, bad will too.

      • Pedro
        Pedro  • 6 years ago

        Well, I think you’re right in the point that this is a win-win situation.

        But the problem was, is today and will always be that ill intended individuals can exploit this. This was so true in the history of mankind, in every aspect of society that developed into a new form. People have exploit vulnerabilities in the society as long as society exists.

        In the past I watched things like Minority Report (ignore the future prediction, focus on the retina scan) and thought that was a really bad thing. Today, I view that actually as a good thing, that people actually know what you like, and most likely you’ll only hear from advertisers that focus on people like you (instead of hammering my eyes in the TV with bad ads for the masses).

        But that can be exploited in so many ways that I fear things may go bad. Because, in my view, a person can do a bad thing even not knowing that it’s harming another human. And this is a really gray area we probably will face in some years, when this becomes more mainstream.

  15. Marieke van de Rakt

    Yes, I am also curious how this will unfold!

  16. Neev
    Neev  • 6 years ago

    It’s just the bad things Facebook is going through. But in reality, it not evil. Its great platform which connects people all over the world. Just not a good time to talk about. Facebook will always be on top.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      I agree. I also like Facebook and I know a few people who work there and they are wonderful people. I hope this episode will be one from which we all can learn!

  17. Daniel John
    Daniel John  • 6 years ago

    At least as a good leader, Mark admitted his mistake, Sorry for his mistakes. Facebook remains one of the best social networks.

    • Stallone
      Stallone  • 6 years ago

      Remember, he said sorry for what was found out, look into “shadow profiles” that Facebook does.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      That’s true. And Facebook indeed is the biggest social network. I also think it serves a need. I think I would have had far less contact with my aunts and uncles if it wasn’t for Facebook.

  18. Rahadian
    Rahadian  • 6 years ago

    I can’t agree more, this is the truth, as for me, I don’t put facebook pixel based on the same reason.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      Great! Good to be on the same page :-)

  19. Mark Eaves
    Mark Eaves  • 6 years ago

    Throughout this whole ordeal, I kept asking myself why this is such a big deal. This is nothing new and I agree with you that it is a moral issue, but if you absolutely don’t want to share data, there are ways to do that.

    Maybe I am too simple minded….but I just don’t get it

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      I think lots of people do not know enough about this issue. If you do not understand anything about tracking pixels and hear about collecting data and selling data, it can be very overwhelming, I guess. It’s hard to have a decent discussion if people do not fully understand how internetmarketing exactly works.

  20. Jeff Moore
    Jeff Moore  • 6 years ago

    Great read! I look forward to seeing how this all plays and how the industry grow from here.