Inherent Risks Of Social Media Advertising – And How To Mitigate Them

Posted by Vishal Kale
November 6, 2017

Self-Published

I was enjoying my morning read of the Business Standard, when my eye fell upon a story – Facebook and Google helpedanti-Refugee campaign in Swing States, Business Standard, Friday 20thOctober. I  noticed this story, and marked it for later contemplation. The recent saga over Twitter usage by  Indian Politicians brought my mind back to this story – and its many implications. While the ethical & moral implications are also present – but most vital is the implication of this, and similar happenings we may or may not be aware of, for us the people as well as for democracy.

 

It is one thing for a politician to openly come on Social Media – quite a few have done it quite successfully; they lay their views, attitudes, national plans, ideals, problems etc – like one Indian Politician. Others use Facebook, and especially  Twitter in their own names to further their own views etc. There is nothing wrong with that – in fact, that is actually welcome, as it helps a large number of people become aware of what that person stands for, as well as have a judgement of his or her potential. Used that way it is ethical, transparent, open and disseminates information.

 

TARGETED USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA BY INTERESTS

However, I would request that you open the link above and read it; the usage of – maybe even targeted usage of – the Social Media platform as described in the article, goes way beyond what has been described above, and indeed way beyond the scourge of fake news that is now a common phenomenon that we are seeing on Social Media nowadays.  “In the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign, voters in swing states including Nevada and North Carolina saw ads appear in their Facebook feeds and on Google websites touting a pair of controversial faux-tourism videos, showing France and Germany overrun by Sharia law.

 

This is quite frankly, extremely disturbing, worrisome and should cause unease and disquiet in most minds. The article goes further, showing emloyees roles as well as targeted advertising : “Unlike Russian efforts to secretly influence the 2016 election via social media, this American-led campaign was aided by direct collaboration with employees of Facebook and Google. They helped target the ads to more efficiently reach the intended audiences, according to internal reports from the ad agency that ran the campaign, as well as five people involved with the efforts.

 

FACTOR 1 : OUR ENTIRE LIVES ARE ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INTERNET

In the modern world, those of us connected on Social Media have our entire lives on these platforms; it is easy to collate and study patterns for the SM companies – with a larger customer base meaning more defined patterns. It allows advertisers to target people specifically as per your individual tastes. Just think – you click on a site, and ads related to that site pop-up in your feed; used this way, it is legal, ethical as well as a powerful advertising tool, which can and does lead to win-win situations for the customers as well as the companies alike. But recall that we have our opinions, likes and dislikes etc all openly stated; it is easy to spot patterns and create interest groups on a large database.

 

FACTOR 2 : IMPACT OF AV MESSAGES & MODERN PREFERENCES OF PEOPLE

Secondly, the impact of Audio-Visual messages is known to be strong in both psychology as well as advertising. Further, add to that the increasingly short attention span of the audience combined with the sad phenomenon of lesser personal time / greater work stress, as well as the propensity to prefer easier to assimilate modes of information gathering {AV}, and short tit bits. These two sub-factors combine to create a situation that enables a mind to easily assimilate and accept messages that meet these criteria stated above.

 

DRAWING INFERENCES FROM THE TWO FACTORS

The two major factors above create a situation wherein a targeted message can be accepted with readiness and ease at least by one segment of the population. The abilities and concepts described in the first factor create a set of people with vested interests that enable the creation of ability and skill sets that can be put to use to reach the set of consumers identified for targeted messaging. In other words, to put it crudely, a set of people willing to accept, and a set of providers willing to use this acceptability of the people to get across a targeted message comes together to create confusion.

 

Let me explain – on one side, you have a set a data, voluminous, about people – their likes, dislikes, views, readership, viewership, opinions. We can use this to create sub-groups according to various tastes, opinions and what-have-you. This is the company-side skill. On the other side, you have a set of people with easy acceptance of AV or short messages, short content as told in the second factor. The companies can spot patterns among the people, can group them together. Thus it is becomes easy to make tailormade messages that can influence people with specific proclivities and propel their choices towards a targeted objective.

 

It is feasible to create patterns, extrapolate and draw inferences from Social Media activities. If one person has a habit of regularly visiting Food sites, specific to Chololates, Desserts, Cakes – one can draw the inference that this person may have a preference for sweets. Similarly, if a person regularly likes, tweets, gives opinion on one side of any view in the political or social spectrum, you can extrapolate that he believes in one POV. In large enough data – hundreds of thousands of respondents – this will enable the identification of a set of people predisdisposed towards a thought process. This may not hold true for all instances –  but in a large enough data sets of people, patterns will emerge that generally hold true;and remember, in Social Media we are dealing with live data sets, not snapshots of time.

 

As can be seen above – a targeted message {Anti-Refuge} was delivered through social media. And again, as we can read, there was direct collaboration of employees. Result was a strong message was delivered at a targeted audience, again as stated in the article.  And that is why the article above is so disturbing. While it is possible for this to happen even without the collusion of employees of SM companies, it becomes infinitely easier with their help; also, the data is also relatively error-free. Add to this the issue of Subliminal Advertising – of which currently there is no provable evidence in the public domain, and neither is it a legislated area.

 

COMING TO INDIA…

Can this happen in India? Has this happened in India? We do not know; I hope not. But we do know that now the political parties are using Social Media in myriad ways, as has been extensively reported. We also know of at least one book on trolling or usage of SM by one party. We have seen another getting smarter in its SM presence. This they should do – SM is an efficient way to reach audiences – be it politics or be it consumer goods. No issues with that whatsoever.

 

The problem is if this newfound capability is used to get across a targeted message – especially one of the fringe variety, towards a targeted audience. The biggest question is – where do we draw the line? And who is to judge what is the line specifically? If we have the capability to segment audiences as per tastes, I for one see no reason why that should not be used for mutual benefit. But – as I asked in my previous article as well – how far is too far?

 

It is we ourselves that are giving these parties and these companies this ability, by placing all our choices openly. This cannot be avoided in increasingly connected world – just not posting on SM is not the long term solution; other proxies can easily be developed, as so much is online in the modern world, that with time, money and capability drawing inferences from data sets is dead easy. This is the evil side, the negative side of the technology that drives our civilization. It really boils down to data security, and a question of simple regulation and ethics.

 

A QUESTION OF RULES & REGULATIONS

The Social Media companies need to have a strong set of internal rules &  regulations governing content that is accepted by their advertising departments; one that is specially rigorous for political parties or for messages that can be construed to have a political content, or indeed for social content. There has to be a differentiator clearly placed between product-service advertising, and cause advertising. This is doable and is frankly easy to do and operate. It requires an iron will within companies. It also requires strict regulation and a code of ethics so that pressure tactics are not used to pressurize companies.

 

CONCLUSION

Both the above are doable; we in corporate India need to wake up and smell the coffee. We need to open our eyes, and see the immense potential for good that technology holds as well as the immense potential for influence it holds – and the potential for damage. On a personal side, we customers need to be made more aware of privacy issues, data security and issues arising out of the above. It is not feasible to expect 500million people to stop posting opinions etc on SM; that is not going to happen.  Above all we need to understand the immense creative as well as disruptive power social media holds, its potential, as well as the need for regulation. This is a space that is not self-regulating. We need to wake up, and ensure that some borders are set in place. The US example should not be repeated… 

 

Disclaimer – This article first appeared on my blog, https://reflectionsvvk.blogspot.in

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