The Existential Crisis Facing the Industry… Correction: ALL Industries!

Discussion on the use of behavioral targeting, data management, psychometrics, and social analytics is impacting society and its role in the future of research, data management, and communications industries.

The controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s role in utilizing Facebook’s data – OUR data – to direct the outcome of the 2016 election has caused quite a firestorm of misunderstanding and dissemination of misguided information. We are still learning all the specific details regarding the tactics Cambridge Analytica deployed, so to keep us focused, I want to concentrate on the use of personal data and how it is leveraged to influence or manipulate people and the impact this could have on our society and the industries that drive our economy.

As headline after headline rolls out of the media industrial complex, the world is finally learning what “big data” really means and how their personal data can be leveraged to manipulate the behavioral outcomes of large population groups. In the Information Age, I would call this our moment of enlightenment. And I do believe this situation will continue to escalate and become an existential crisis for the research, data management, and media industries. A crisis that if not properly addressed, will lead to a collapse of current business models and potentially entire industry sectors.

Every one of us who were innovators and early adopters of behavioral targeting, data management, psychometrics, and social analytics are all accountable for what has manifested today. It is in times like this that we must insert ourselves as socially responsible mediators and practitioners to secure the future of research, data management, and communications industries and to secure a future of sustainable cultural discourse.

I have been working in the psychometrics space for nearly ten years, with application to the practice of behavioral design and cultural transformation. But prior to that, I was in digital media. About 8 years ago, I had formed a joint venture with a social science research company, to leverage their methodology to design a practice, which at the time we called ‘cognitive marketing’. Very quickly we realized the impact these methods could have in changing collective perception and behavior, and ultimately creating cultural paradigm shifts through intentional design, and not necessarily for the better.

In 2012, I hit a moral crossroads in my career and realized it was time to get out of digital marketing and apply these practices in more socially responsible ways. In the process, I found purpose amid this moral dilemma. And now, entire industries are being confronted with this dilemma and it is time for everyone to self-reflect on their own values and purpose to determine what actions or inactions to take in shaping the future of the industries we pioneered with the greatest of intentions to create a better tomorrow. Well, tomorrow is now today.

For many of us who work in psychometrics and memetics, it was rather easy to project that Trump would be the winner, months before the actual election. Purely on observation (not even with scientific validation), we could project based of the narrative framing of information, how media was reporting, and how memes were propagating across social networks the probable outcome. It was not only unsurprising that Trump won, but it was likely, based on the evolving patterns of perception and systemic interactions of our cultural system. For the trained eye, it was obvious this was by design; otherwise known as social engineering. Only now, the public is learning about it and understanding how it was done. Yet, much of the techniques Cambridge Analytica applied are the same practices (less the alleged illegal practices) most sophisticated marketers practice every day.

The attack on marketing methodologies and practices will be coming fast and furious, so it is best to attempt to get out in front of the situation. We need to recognize and appreciate the impact these new revelations can have on the research industry, as well as all media and marketing disciplines. The issues we are confronted with today are ethical and moral issues and ones we have been incapable of self-regulating. Many of us who were in digital media can recall that for many years the FTC was present at many of the digital media conferences preaching to us to self-regulate before the government stepped in. And frankly, we did a terrible job. Well, the chickens have come home to roost.

A call for self-regulation has been going on since the DoubleClick Abacus project of 1999 (which I was a part of as well) and the data layering was primitive at best, compared to what we are witnessing today. This has been an evolving issue since the first cookie was dropped. We now appear to be approaching the precipice of widespread consumer activism and what I believe to be the inevitable regulation of data collection and management practices that will have dramatic economic consequences.

The difference between ‘influence’ and ‘manipulation’ is intention and transparency. We have a moral obligation for how we leverage data and we must be transparent with everyone whose data we utilize and allow them the opportunity to decide what to share or not. And no, burying how data is being used in dozens of pages of privacy policy legal BS is not a solution. It must be clear, concise, user-friendly, and opted in based on a clear understanding of what someone is opting in to and how their data is being used and shared.

Additionally, we must separate the methodology and platforms from the intentions of bad actors. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The use of data is very beneficial. But, with big data comes big responsibility. What we are witnessing today is a taste for how social engineers can weaponize communication channels and platforms. This isn’t new. It’s been going on for many years. But ignorance is bliss and we have now been enlightened. So, we must take action.

This issue transcends all industries and pillars of society. I personally know someone who works for the military whose sole purpose is to understand the complexity of terrorist organizations and how they recruit and persuade people through similar social engineering techniques. And major investors use similar methods to influence market behavior. And companies use similar techniques to build brands. And yes, politicians use these techniques to win elections. Frankly, it is common practice. Unethical, perhaps. Illegal, no. Requires change, definitely!

So, my question to you is…

As industry leaders and pioneers how will you take action and transform your practices so that we can secure the future of our industries and create a sustainable culture for all?

Please share...

12 responses to “The Existential Crisis Facing the Industry… Correction: ALL Industries!

  1. Jason, that you had a moral epiphany is great for you – so few of we humans ever get to a point like that and Maslow would be proud. That our industry is going to change willingly is, unfortunately, most unlikely, imho. Our job is to help sell more stuff and we tend to use whatever tools are available to do that. If we want this to stop, we have to take away some of these tools or have them taken away for us. I would not bet against the latter.

    1. Thanks Steve! Yeah, I agree that regulation will most likely need to happen to change the practice. I wouldn’t expect an entire industry to proactively change. I recognize that it is the idealist in me. 🙂

  2. I would like to join Steve in congratulating you, Jason. I have a concern, problem, issue, point of view … whatever you may call it

    There is only one issue. And that is the issue raised by the statement below, in caps. .

    HUH? IT WAS MOST CERTAINLY NOT OBVIOUS TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY TO THE POLLSTERS AND TO THE MARKET RESEARCHERS. IN FACT, TRUMP’S WIN WAS A COMPLETE SURPRISE TO EVERYONE. I DON’T REMEMBER ANYONE FESSING UP TO KNOWING TRUMP WOULD WIN, AND IN FACT FESSING UP TO EVEN HELPING TRUMP.

    Before presenting your words again, I just want to point out that:

    1. No one really knows what Cambridge Analytica did from a technical point of view. What was/is their ‘secret sauce.’ So I’m not sure it’s something sophisticated marketers do.

    2. The Trump campaign used other approaches as well, such as optimizing the messaging, without having to do illegal things. Please see the link and look specifically at page 15 (where Business Insider of 26 August, 2016 talks about the messaging given to Trump to optimize acceptance in the Black community).

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/i7sx9oxelukn72s/Vox%20Populi.A%20New%20Political%20Science.01.02.2017.docx.pdf?dl=0

    The bottom line … everyone was surprised at Trump’s win, perhaps even Mr. Trump himself. But over time we tend to revise history in our mind.

    Your words, Jason:
    For many of us who work in psychometrics and memetics, it was rather easy to project that Trump would be the winner, months before the actual election. Purely on observation (not even with scientific validation), we could project based of the narrative framing of information, how media was reporting, and how memes were propagating across social networks the probable outcome. It was not only unsurprising that Trump won, but it was likely, based on the evolving patterns of perception and systemic interactions of our cultural system. For the trained eye, it was obvious this was by design; otherwise known as social engineering. Only now, the public is learning about it and understanding how it was done. Yet, much of the techniques Cambridge Analytica applied are the same practices (less the alleged illegal practices) most sophisticated marketers practice every day

    1. Thanks Howard! Very much appreciated. Don’t get me wrong, I was not happy Trump won, but projecting his win for those who specialize in memetics and social epidemics was rather common among my peers. I had many conversations with colleagues discussing this and actually posted frequently that he would win months before the election. This further points out the flaws with traditional polling and research methodologies.

      1. Many non-polling approaches (and at least 2 prominent regular polls) did predict a Trump win months in advance: the ARF and GreenBook hosted a post-election debrief discussing this (http://greenbookblog.org/2016/11/15/predicting-election-2016-what-worked-what-didnt-and-the-implications-for-marketing-insights/), and quite a few observers who were looking at multiple data sources (myself humbly included) did as well. That is why I have never bought into the idea that any kind of “tampering” occurred that changed the outcome in a substantive way. However, that said even the specter of “mass influence campaigns” based on psychological targeting is a sensitive area for many and the current news cycle is only going to reinforce that. Like Jason, I fear that we are heading towards a politically motivated regulatory solution that will have massive implications for all who collect, analyze, and activate consumer data regardless of source.

  3. Nice one Jason Burnham! But yes as Steve Needel and Howard Moskowitz commented (and IMHO, correct as well), knowing that Trump’s going to win was a surprise indeed and not commonsensical at all. Infact after quite a time, almost all the companies got the polls wrong.

    Having said that moral grounds of digital marketing and targeting are shaky indeed and would require pretty strong regulatory framework.

    We often say it quite loosely but come to think of it, if google (web and android), amazon and facebook data is ever merged, these companies might know us better than ourselves and might I say that it’s not a good thing at all.

  4. My fear over the last ten years is that MR is dying a slow death. There are many reasons, which I won’t go into now, but say that widespread violations of data security by a well-known credit union and the admitted manipulation of public opinion by companies like Cambridge Analytica is sure to bring the regulators down on to our backs. Also, double talk by social media leaders and possible refusals to testify before governing bodies in Europe or the U.S. won’t help either. In my opinion, the credibility of our industry is at its lowest level in history. Also, forcing calling elections which are within the margin of error is just plain suicide. Unfortunately, political polling is the tail wagging the survey research dog to death.

  5. Both political parties failed the American people in putting the two candidates up for the role of POTUS in 2016. That having been said, from what has been shared following the election regarding Mrs. Clinton’s attitude toward voters in key “Blue” states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc.) is what caused her not to have the necessary Electoral College votes to win the Presidency and not the impact (if any) of Cambridge Analytica. Just one man’s opinion.

  6. It sure seems to me that the concern over CA and Facebook exists only because Trump won, and had he lost, assuming all of the very same Facebook/CA actions had occurred just as described, the ruckus would be much lower in volume, or non-existent. The real problem is that Trump won. Some people can’t live with that simple reality.

    1. I do tend to agree that this reaction is politically driven and if the focus of the CA/Facebook story was driving a CPG product to massive market gains we wouldn’t be having this conversation. However, regardless of the reasons or motivation, it IS an issue now, and it has the full force of political will behind it so it is something all of us who work in the marketing and analytics spaces will have to deal with.

  7. “The difference between ‘influence’ and ‘manipulation’ is intention and transparency.” Not sure that intention and transparency are necessary conditions of either influence or manipulation. This could be read as bad faith; the goal – intent – of promoting products (or candidates) is to influence/manipulate (skillfully influence) the outcome. Surely, the issue here is *integrity*. Marketing is manipulation, and market research helps marketers master manipulation.

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Jason Burnham

Jason Burnham

Principal, Communications & Design, Innovation Lead, Strativity Group