Hands up if you’ve watched The Great Hack on Netflix? I wasn’t going to watch it as I felt I knew the bones of the story from following the revelations, in real-time, as they came to light on Twitter, and reading the many Guardian and Observer articles but I succumbed one rainy Saturday.
For those who don’t know Netflix invites viewers to ‘Explore how a data company named Cambridge Analytica came to symbolize the dark side of social media in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election’. FYI it also covers our very own 2016 referendum on the EU and whether to stay or go.
I can’t say I enjoyed it, and I can’t say I learned a lot. It did the job of telling the basics of the quite frankly complex and ongoing issues surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in the US elections and UK referendum. I say complex and ongoing as they are! Evidence has been gathered, and presented to the right people, but not much seems to have happened. Yes, Cambridge Analytica (CA) no longer exists and Facebook has come under huge scrutiny on issues surrounding privacy and data, but the story continues.
I asked, on my Dead Good With Words Facebook page (I ditched personal FB pre hacking revelations some time ago) if people had watched it and what they thought. Responses included ‘scary’ and ‘interesting’. But which bits? The concept (and business of) data collection is not new. Is it the fact that the data was collected without permission or knowledge that’s scary? Or that it was used to target people for political gain that’s scary? Or is it because people were targeted on Facebook which is scary, when Facebook is supposed to be fun?
I can’t/won’t speak for others but I’m pretty sure I didn’t see any of the highly targeted ads that were directed at the ‘persuadables’ on Facebook. Maybe my data was collected, maybe it wasn’t. I’m 99.9% sure I didn’t complete the Cambridge University personality test/app that collected the initial data that FB and CA went on to sell. One or more of my then FB friends might have done though and the evidence suggests that the personality app behind all the data collection also scraped the data of anyone in their friends’ list. My data may have ruled me out as being a ‘persuadable’, I hope so because I’m not persuadable. I’m cynical and savvy! Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian said in the film that what CA did was Psyops. According to Wikipedia – Psyops is Psychological operations to convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of governments, organisations, groups, and individuals.
Eek, is that what’s scary? Collecting our data and using it against us? But aren’t we all persuadable (except me, I’m savvy and cynical) otherwise why would marketing and advertising exist?
What The Great Hack left me with was many, many questions. It didn’t go deep enough for me. But then I probably wasn’t the target audience, and the material always has to be directed at the target audience – ahem, see The Great Hack.
The ethics of what went on are questionable to say the least, but the business of persuading people to take action based on what we know about a target market is not new. Or is the outrage purely because the data was used to try and persuade voters and to mess with democracy?
The issues highlighted in The Great Hack and other related issues it didn’t cover such as the sharing of data between the three separate groups for Leave in the UK and the rules around campaign funds are a side step from the business of copywriting and my usual blog posts. That said, copywriters must have been involved in the creating of the messages to the persuadables and I’ve not seen any of my contemporaries sticking their hands up to admit to being involved. And interestingly from a PR and crisis comms perspective, the ex CFO of CA said in the film that they’d approached a host of crisis comms companies to help them when the story first broke and no one would take them on. Bravo to all those companies for taking an ethical stand.
My take on the film and some of the issues is this. Collecting data is not inherently bad. Collecting it without consent is. But data in itself is not bad. Understanding consumer behaviour is good. Nudging people in a direction using behavioural economics is good. Manipulating elections is bad.
What do you think?