The following is an opinion piece that appeared in the NBR

Following its premiere on Netflix last week, I watched ‘The Great Hack’ over the weekend – a summary of the dark side of social media and its influence on the 2016 US election. If you’re at all interested in digital marketing or politics, you should watch it too. It’s fascinating, enlightening, and if I’m completely honest, a little bit scary (in an Orwellian kind of way). But a lot of what Cambridge Analytica did was just smart marketing. At some point though, they crossed the line – and paid the price for it. There are a number of takeaways in this story. 

Firstly, digital marketing is incredibly powerful. You may not realise the US election wasn’t the only political result Cambridge Analytica influenced. They were behind Brexit and a number of other campaigns all around the world. Each time they were involved, they drove a significant shift to help their candidates win. How did they do this? The key component was using digital media targeting persuadable voters in the right swing states, at the right time, and then advertising to them. At face value, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just a contemporary and common-sense marketing approach.

However, in order to get better information to target people, they entered into dubious commercial arrangements with certain app owners to buy massive amounts of personal data. Essentially, they purchased user data from people that filled in online personality surveys. These surveys had terms and conditions allowing the app owners access to all their data, all their friends’ data and then allowed them to on-sell it to other people. Whilst ethically improper, it also highlights how casual people are with giving away their data. 

With that personality data, the Cambridge Analytica team then developed a sequence of content pieces highly targeted to each different personality segment, all of which were specifically designed to trigger a response. However, by posting anonymously with no attributable brand or backer for the ads, they crossed the line once again. In addition, a lot of this content was also ‘fake news’, of questionable veracity, or in some cases simply made up to provoke a response.

There was a comment in the documentary from one of the senior executives at Cambridge Analytica, that this situation was inevitable. What he was referring to was the potent aggregated power of data, targeted advertising, and content to shape opinion and human behaviour. With the political and commercial stakes so high, it was in the end, simply too tempting for the organisation to cross an ethical line with the lack of any clear regulatory or governance frameworks.

It’s clear we need better ways to help people manage and restrict the use of their personal data. We live in a world where we’re used to giving it away in exchange for services that makes our lives easier. Regrettably, it’s impossible to put that genie back in the bottle. But there does need to be greater visibility on what data apps and services we are using, and who, if anyone, they are being shared with.

Coming back to the positives – what can we learn from The Great Hack?

  • Challenger tactics work – Trump’s message of fixing corruption and ‘making America great again’ worked.
  • You don’t have to spend more to win – Hillary Clinton spent 70% more than Trump ($581m to $340m) but Trump still won.
  • Audience segmentation is crucial – Identifying key audiences to trial or change behaviour is an essential component of contemporary marketing.
  • Getting the mix of messaging is important – You need both a broad brand layer and relevant, tailored messaging to spark consideration. Hillary Clinton focused much more on TV, whilst Trump invested a much greater proportion of his budget online with more specific consideration messaging focused on driving behaviour change. 
  • ‘Don’t be evil’ – Google’s famous guiding principle (ironically removed from its code of conduct in 2018) is more important than ever. 

If you want to know more about how digital marketing works and better understand the 2016 US election, coupled with the impact Cambridge Analytica had upon it, this powerful and prescient documentary is essential viewing. With the 2020 elections nearly upon us (both domestically and in the US), intelligent filmmaking like this deserves the biggest audience it can find.

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