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Paul Masterman: In Facebook’s data crisis lie lessons for local government

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Social media is having a #MeToo moment as it dawns on many of us – perhaps for the first time – that behind the boyish smiles and grey T-shirts, Facebook is free because it’s a giant corporation that sells our data so other big corporations can sell us stuff we don’t need.

Never again will we be so careless about giving away our private thoughts to be “harvested” by what cultural commentator Steve Poole has called the “dark farmers of our digital lives”.

The ultimate significance of all this has yet to play out, but already there are some lessons here for local government and the way it should engage with its residents.

First, Facebook is not dead for public sector communicators (yet), but we local government communicators have been very gung-ho about the platform and at the mercy of its ever-changing algorithm. Perhaps Bradford City MDC digital communications and marketing specialist Albert Freeman was right when he recently said we need to step away and look at the range of tools literally at our fingertips, such as email.

My own small hometown in Shropshire has a thriving Facebook community that swaps information, fraud alerts, news, gossip and mutual support among a wide range of citizens of all ages and backgrounds. We corporate communicators need to stop trying to control the message and instead give virtual communities like this one the resources, support and encouragement to help themselves.

Second, local government needs to learn the lessons from how badly Zuckerberg and others have handled this crisis. The now ex-CEO of Cambridge Analytica being chased down London streets by a pack of reporters was not a good look. Zuck failed to show leadership until he was forced into a half-hearted mea culpa by a sudden drop in his net worth.

You can’t PR your way out of what you have behaved yourself into, as the saying goes. Instead, come out early, apologise genuinely, admit your mistakes, don’t blame others – and explain how you are going to put things right.

Third, the old media business model may be dying on its ink-splashed feet, but three cheers for the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr who broke this story in an actual newspaper after some good old-fashioned investigative reporting.

While there might be some councils that are pleased there is less scrutiny of their work by local reporters, in truth the decline in coverage of councils in local papers is a threat to accountable democracy and should be mourned.

This dystopian future is sadly with us already in some areas. Right now, young, inexperienced reporters on your local newspaper website are hunched over laptops concocting dodgy clickbait stories from complaints about potholes.

In the modern war of ones and zeroes, the first casualty is, as ever, the truth.

Paul Masterman, independent consultant


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