How ethical are the social platforms we use?

Mahmood Shiblaq
March 5, 2021

A couple of weeks ago a colleague asked me if I still felt okay using social media to place ads, and if I still felt comfortable encouraging clients to spend their money on these platforms.

“Good question. Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” I replied sarcastically, waiting for the onslaught to begin.

Cambridge Analytica, The Capitol riots, Trump, Privacy and the Australia ban were amongst some of the words I heard over the next minute or so, followed by the token “have you watched The Social Dilemma?”.  

This conversation got me thinking though, I’ve been working marketing brands on social media for over 6 years now and when I started, the world of using data and influencing decisions on social media was fascinating.

As digital marketers, we all felt we were the smartest people in the room. We would watch clients faces light up when we told them we could serve specific ads to people who had visited their website, and the same again when we told them we could upload their customer data and find out what they were interested in on Facebook, to then explaining that you could match data collected in person (i.e. a house viewing) to a profile on social media, which could let you see which of the client’s ads that person saw or clicked on before they walked into the viewing.

I was hooked on it and thought nothing of privacy. It was all fun and games until an orange man was elected as president of the United States.

2018 marked the year that Facebook ultimately lost its innocence. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was out, and we discovered that there was a breach and personal data from over 87 million Facebook users had been obtained by the political data-analytics firm.

The suspected use of this data has since been implicated with several political campaigns, from Brexit, to Russia and of course, the Trump presidential campaign.

Focusing on the presidential campaign of 2016, it was reported that the administration used the services of Cambridge Analytica. The firm used the harvested data to build psychographic profiles, determining users personality traits based on their Facebook activity. This information was then used to micro-target each segment and present customised messages about Trump based on the respective profile. If the person showed they would likely be a Trump supporter, they would get positive affirmations and triumphant images. If they were likely to be a swing voter (someone who was undecided) then they would get images of his notable supporters and negative messages about his opponents (Hilary Clinton), which focused on highlighting her links to corruption to make him look better.

Aside from the ethics of obtaining the data, and the use of what is arguably propaganda and manipulation techniques, it was the ideal campaign. Find the right target audience and deliver the right message which would be relevant to them, in order to initiate the desired action.

Had the source of this data not been illegal and unethical, this campaign would be the golden standard for digital advertising.

Facebook “did their best” to fix these gaps for the future, by providing transparency around political ads, stopping insights based on custom audiences, and paid around $5 billion USD in fines for their negligence. However, Trump won the presidency, and the next four years would further add to the demise of ethics on social platforms.

During the next few years, we all became wary of our data on social platforms. However, the next issue that arose became how we could control and regulate content that users post on Youtube and Facebook if it is deemed to be harmful.

The internet is full of hatred and unsavoury content, it has been and always will be. We’ve had beheading videos, hate speeches and then a terrorist attack close to home on March 15th 2019. This act of terror was broadcast on Youtube live and Facebook live by a few profiles, and people again witnessed the dark side of an unregulated broadcasting platform.

At that time, brands really did take a stand, and a few clients asked to stop their activity on these platforms and boycott until something was done about regulating the content.

A few changes were made here and there and more measures were put in place but eventually, the dust settled and the brands turned their ads back on and we kept going as normal.

On the subject of unregulated content, and going back to former president Trump, the next 4 years of his presidency would be spent mainly on Twitter.

Twitter has been criticised for allowing the president to speak his mind freely to his millions of followers, even if what he was saying was false, hateful, and misleading. The difference between Twitter/social media in general and traditional media outlets is that on traditional media outlets, content is regulated and censored.

The danger now is that hate speech and propaganda can spread a lot faster with digital channels giving us a whole lot more reach. Take a message and send it to heaps of people and it’s a numbers game, in the end, you will get a minority that follows.

So again, we had the social platforms come out and “do their best” to stop false news but this did not help as the damage had already been done. We ended up with the Capitol riots which were then blamed on social media, allowing people to be bombarded with messages that left them brainwashed.

After all of this, the question still remains. Is it ethical for us as advertisers to continue pumping money into these platforms knowing the damage that they have caused and can still cause?

My answer is, I still don’t know. But I believe we can all pursue ethical practices when advertising.

At the end of the day, it is not only on advertisers but on the general public. It will be interesting to see when people will have had enough and shift elsewhere (on that note, DM me if you want a Clubhouse invite FIFS) because as advertisers, we just look for where you are and follow.

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