When Google first introduced “dont be evil” as the motto for its corporate code of conduct in 2000, it was a prescient line that anticipated the fact that the company would have access to more information about more people than ever before in human history.
Google recognised that this moral responsibility should influence its entire belief and behaviour – and it made the company famous.
Perhaps now, in the midst of panic over our personal data and backlash against the tech titans which let this situation happen, it is time for the social media giants and the strategic communications industry to revisit this motto, and recognise the commercial value of being seen to be on the side of the audience.
We must assume that the online social environment and its associated communications techniques will continue to move faster than legislation can ever hope to keep pace with. With the greatest respect to the senators who interviewed Mark Zuckerberg last week, they didnt seem to have fully grasped todays online realities – let alone be in a position to anticipate tomorrows world.
Its easy to see the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations as a new phenomenon. “Data harvesting” and “psychological operations” sound like they have come straight from an episode of Black Mirror, heralding a new dawn of political spin. But this is a storm that has been brewing for years.
I worked with Alexander Nix at Cambridge Analyticas parent company SCL in 2010, before leaving and setting up my own business after fundamentally disagreeing with the techniques the firm was using.
What we have learnt from the reports of the past month is that Nix was a very close-to-the-edge salesman, who over-promised and under-delivered. He also advocated techniques that crossed a moral and potentially illegal line.
But there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to target online messages to make them more relevant to the audience. This is the future of marketing, and it should be embraced.
For example, I have worked on a de-radicalisation campaign with the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism organisation based in London. We targeted our messaging, and tried to reach a specific group of people who were assessed to be at risk of being radicalised by Daesh.
We did this not by using harvested data of any kind – instead by assessing the language of Daeshs recruitment machine, and the degree to which this audience could fall prey to its persuasion techniques. #NotAnotherBrother is still considered one of the most effective online de-radicalisation campaigns in history. No big data. No unethical campaigning. Just carefully targeted communications that were designed to make our peaceful message more appealing that the Daesh propaganda.
The key, then, is the degree to which companies are able to communicate their transparency, accountability, and overall ethics. This will define how successful they are in the future.
Its a given that the online world provides professional communicators with a wealth of audience information that was previously unthinkable. Its the nature of the medium: baked into the social media fabric. However, just because you can get more data on your audience, doesnt mean you should. The sheer scale of data doesnt always mean more insights.
The companies that continue to seek data because they believe that scale will impress clients are likely to suffer significant reputational issues. Those that only seek enough data to create relevant content will become the industry giants of tomorrow.
Either way, from my perspective, the future looks a lot brighter as a consequence of the Cambridge Analytica story. If any data laws were broken, it should be relatively simple for the authorities to progress with the appropriate fines and prosecutions.
But beyond the purely legal angle, these revelations have made the global online audience aware that these techniques are possible – and that they now have the power to decide for themselves which brands they wish to invite into their lives.
If nothing else, Cambridge Analytica may have unwittingly provided us all with a long-overdue first step towards a more morally responsible and effective online communications environment. Tech giants: take note, and dont be evil.