What has whale meat got to do with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal? Read on…
by Ben Capper
What are your thoughts on whale meat? How might this affect how you vote in future?
Brief back story (bear with me):
As members of the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA or “the Single Market”), the UK is legally not allowed to place restrictions on produce made or processed in a member state being sold in the domestic market. As whale meat is caught and eaten in Iceland and parts of Norway (both EEA members), there is theoretically nothing we plucky Brits can do to stop their whale meat being imported and sold in your local Tesco Metro. You could argue that good old market forces (i.e. the fact that most British people consider whale meat either ethically indefensible or culinary appalling) probably override any international legal trade obligations in reality, but technically this is true. Once your product is legal in one member state, it has to be legal in all.
Why is this relevant?
Well, if political-podcasts are your thing, I can strongly recommended “Remainiacs”. There’s usually a sweary hour-long episode every Friday. In the 30th March podcast there was a fascinating discussion led by Ros Taylor, Editor of the LSE Brexit Blog in to the subject of the Cambridge Analytica (henceforth referred to as “CA”) scandal and the alleged links to the motley crew of Leave Campaigns during the EU Referendum. In it, she highlights a Facebook ad targeted at users whom were thought to be receptive to messages about animal rights and welfare, playing on the aforementioned whale meat issue.
During the Referendum, I didn’t see that ad. Neither did most people. In fact I can see no trace of it online. But by all accounts it did exist. How much impact it had on those individuals that did see it, is difficult or impossible to quantify. This is, however, how micro-targeting in this sense worked during the campaign.
When the scandal broke a few weeks ago, I dutifully followed my instinct and fell straight in line with the very real outrage pervading online and in the national media. I considered #deletingfacebook and was surer than ever that the Referendum result (and the US Election result) were based on manipulation and lies.
But it was a post by Albert Freeman that made me initially take a step outside of my bubble and consider this from a different angle. Then I thought a bit about how we as communicators use social media (in particular Facebook) to target our audiences with specific messages, and how when I worked for an agency, I would regale clients with the wonders of what Facebook can do to target messages down to the nth degree. “It’s so cost effective”, “You can target it as literally 10s of people in your neighbourhood”.
All of a sudden the moral certainty I felt reading the brilliant Observer expose, started to dissipate slightly, and made me feel a bit ill at ease.
The fact that the result of what is alleged to have happened is something that (full disclosure) I am unhappy about probably was initially blinding me to something quite obvious: that this is marketing in its purest form.
It’s analysing data, and concluding trends from it which help to segment audiences based on their preferences. Then it’s tailoring messages and designing an infrastructure to move them to a desired course of action.
This is the very basic bread and butter of the job. What the boffins at CA managed to do was perfect this targeting and tailoring on a minute level, based on patterns of behaviours. And, to give them credit, they were pretty good at it.
Just before it looks like I’m exonerating them of any wrong doing, there are of course two, in my mind, very serious legal and ethical issues that we currently know of here: the alleged illegal funnelling of campaign funds via an autonomous group to pay CA directly; and the –apparently-not-illegal-but-very-questionable practice of the now notorious Facebook personality test app harvesting participants friends’ data.
Legal process should be followed and those responsible held to account.
However, if you can put those aside for a minute, I think there are broader uncomfortable (and sometimes contradictory) questions about our profession that are worth us all considering:
1. Message or channel – what’s more important?
Irrespective of what dark arts CA employed, they had something that the Remain campaign wouldn’t have recognised if it slapped them in the face with a putrefied shark’s fin (another Icelandic delicacy): a clear, resonant message. I wrote about this 2 months after the Referendum result on these very pages, and nothing in this story invalidates that view. What we now know however, is how brilliantly and endlessly adaptable it was. It played on the very human notion of “control”. Who doesn’t want “control” over their lives? Be it in restricting immigration or the sale of “foreign muck” like whale meat, that message had something for everyone.
Even if Remain had employed these shadowy methods, their lack of any kind of human language or consistent emotionally resonant message would’ve meant their investment would’ve failed.
2. Do we truly understand what “behaviour change” means?
An agency I used to work at specialised in “behaviour change”. This was a very easy concept to work with and use when working with say, NHS organisations on, for example, stop smoking campaigns. We’d find out about the audience in question, and design services and comms to help support and move them to make healthier choices (i.e. give up smoking), and very often this would be really successful.
But sometimes when we worked with clients with harder-edged targets e.g. sales or driving people to use a service to make it viable, their expectations could be very different. I remember having a difficult mid-project meeting with one client who was disappointed in the current numbers of people engaging with their new offer and being put on the spot with this zinger: “We hired you because you said you’d do behaviour change”.
My retort to this was always that behaviour change is a methodical process. It’s not magic or dark-arts mind-control. There has to be desire or the slightest kernel of a desire to change or move in a certain direction in the first place. Our job as communicators is to provide the motivational and practical support to help individuals make that change, whatever it is.
Behaviour change is not about tricking people into making decisions that they know are against their best interests. This point is critical when understanding the CA scandal.
A lot the noise from people like me who are unhappy with the referendum result focuses on the convenient and comforting belief that the scandal is “proof” that Leave voters were “tricked” into voting the way they did. I think this is not only patronising and wrong, but completely misses the point of how these things work.
CA targeted individuals whose Facebook activity suggested that they would/could be moved to vote Leave based on their views on a whole range of topics. The key issue is that a small degree of motivation had to be there in the first place in order for them to take that course of action.
That’s behaviour change comms in a nutshell.
And it probably explains why you never saw the whale meat advert.
I guess you’re just not that into whales.
3. What are our new ethical boundaries?
So given these previous two points, how the hell do we keep doing our jobs whilst ensuring we can sleep at night?
Well clearly we’re in new territory these days, and the possibilities of micro-targeting demand that we look afresh at the values and behaviours we sign-up to as professional communicators.
Targeting audiences with tailored content is our way of making sure our comms are effective, cost efficient, and help to drive the right people into the right services at the right time. Social media (in particular Facebook) remain brilliant platforms for doing this. And in that respect, can and should continue to be a force for good.
But we need to take a few things a lot more seriously.
GDPR is a good start in this regard. But rather than just lumping everything we do as a “legitimate interest” and carrying on regardless, we need to take much greater care in how we use our audiences’ data, and be far more mindful of their preferences. This isn’t so much a legal or policy shift, but one of mindset. We need to think “how would I feel seeing or receiving this message?”, and take far greater heed of what data subjects believe or know they’re signing up to.
The aforementioned “legitimate interest” clause in GDPR seems to be getting used as the get-out-of-jail-free-card for almost any use of personal data, and ultimately means that most ways we use personal data will still be legally allowed.
But legal obligation and ethical best-practice are not the same – as the Facebook personality quiz app has most dramatically demonstrated. So once we’ve satisfied ourselves that we’re legally compliant, we also need to give far more consideration as to whether what we’re doing is ethically preferable. This is harder work, but essential if we’re going to build trust with our users and communities.
– Targeting vs. intrusion vs. discrimination
Targeting is good. Targeting is what makes us effective communicators and helps to develop mutually beneficial relationships with our users and customers.
But what the CA scandal highlighted is an aspect of intrusion. Not necessarily intrusion in the classic sense, but more emotional intrusion – leading to potential manipulation. This scandal has shone a light very clear on the boundaries of what makes us comfortable. We seem to be fine with very transactional targeting (i.e. “you liked this, so you might also like that”). But highly emotive messages based on a mind-bendingly complex and hidden data profile? We seem to be officially not OK with that. We need to be sensitive to this, and act accordingly.
And there’s a very difficult question around, when does targeting become discriminatory? During the recent and unintentionally hilarious “Grandads trying the fix the VCR”-fest, that has been the Mark Zuckerberg Senate Hearings, one very interesting question came from New Jersey Senator and likely 2020 Presidential candidate Cory Booker; where he asked about how Facebook targeting has been exploited by businesses to exclude minorities in their commercial activity.
The fact is, that it is technically incredibly easy to exclude as well as include people in your Facebook messaging. But just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should – especially when your targeting tips over from “personalised” into “discriminatory”. And where that line is drawn is something as an industry we need to be a lot clearer on.
And maybe that’s the point from this entire furore. Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.
I think I’ll remember that the next time I visit an Icelandic restaurant…
Ben Capper is director of marketing at Liverpool Students’ Union
image via Toronto History