The Auction of Oneself and its risks : Facebook’s ugly face (3/4)

Why is there so much noise about the Cambridge Analytica crisis? What is really new about people not trusting in Facebook? I could argue that the use of demographic data for marketing purposes (or political purposes) is a common practice since the days of Gallup and their predictions based on opinion polls dating back to 1940. Since then, much has evolved, and the large-scale use of data in politics and marketing is a natural consequence of this evolution. Or is it not?

Marketing is a persuasive science (or art) and it has been always about matching. Think about marketing as a dating service, matching people, with their needs and desires, with products and services. Or, in the political area, voters with politicians. This is very clear from Kotler’s definition:

Marketing is the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit.  Marketing identifies unfulfilled needs and desires. It defines, measures and quantifies the size of the identified market and the profit potential. It pinpoints which segments the company is capable of serving best and it designs and promotes the appropriate products and services.

The use of psychological profiling and data mining in this infamous case it is not very different from what database marketers had promised 20 years ago, with the difference that now it is possible to deliver on these promises to a level of granularity close to 1-to-1 and in real time! Because now there is technology, there is abundance of data and companies such as Facebook or Google learned how to monetize from people’s online footprint.

The economy of exhibitionism and its costs

As I mentioned on my previous post about this topic, the boundaries have blurred and we have difficulties to know where our private world ends and the public domain starts. And this happened because we volunteered information in a process that Piñuel Raigada, my PhD thesis director, called “the auction of oneself”. When users start to trade their holidays’ photos, or their sons’ photos, or their selfies for “likes”, it is clear that an economy of exhibitionism has begun, under the suggestive name of “shared economy”. Yes, we share for the simply pleasure of sharing and enjoying the exposition of ourselves for networking purposes, but the shared economy is not free at all, as it has been always suggested. In fact, the intermediators of the shared economy have been spectacularly skilled in profiting from these footprints, and privacy pays a price for that.  To a certain point, there’s nothing wrong with that, and people seem not care too much and they are definitively more relaxed about privacy – perhaps because they don’t know the risks.

So, what is the real price of the shared economy? What are the risks?

The scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica sheds new light on the networked society, and the question now has to do, in my opinion, less about privacy, and more about the breach of trust and confidence on these companies in the trade of one self(ie) for one like. Other important risks are the possibilities of manipulation of personal data in a world with of fake news and fake promises, a post-truth world.

It is clear that the digital giants are the new mining companies, but instead of silver and gold these companies are data mining the lives of millions of people and companies in search of patterns that will make it even more efficient the marketing process. The ideal of marketing, at last, will be fulfilled, thanks to the consumer, the king of this customer-centric, data-centric world, that will enjoy the «personalised services and products» they long for. This can be really good, and, as a marketer, I don’t see a problem here, if these companies act with responsibility, which was not what we saw in this case, hence, Mark Zuckemberg’s apology.

But if they start to getting serious about this responsibility, consumers and society will probably face important collateral effects. As the reader Paulo Seth brilliantly commented on my previous post: “Honestly, if you don’t care about your own online safety you deserve all the misery you can get.”


The Myth of Transparency: Facebook´s ugly face (2/4)

A crisis about transparency (or lack of), we could summarise the Facebook reputation nightmare. Or, as the Times magazine puts it  brilliantly: “All this has prompted sharp criticism of the company, which meticulously tracks its users but failed to keep track of where information about the lives and thinking of those people went.” In this apparent paradox lies the first point I would like to highlight in this 4-part analysis: The Myth of Transparency.

If you read books such as Jeff Jarvis’ Public Parts (2011), you know how social media has successfully created a hype about the virtues of living life under the public sphere, in a continuous Self Big Brother. Although back then Jarvis agreed with some sort of protection to people’s privacy, such as the ones proposed by then European commissioner Viviane Reding, he was defending a libertarian, perhaps utopian, view of transparency that disregarded a basic impulse behind the “publification” of our lives by tech companies: data has economic value and social media thrives on marketing data.

What this crisis has brought to the surface and to the attention of regulators was the culmination of a series of privacy issues and breaches involving Internet and more famously Facebook. It is perhaps the beginning of the “end of the innocence” and the realisation by the users that transparency is good when it happens on both ways: from the part of the producer of the data (i.e. us) and the marketer of the data (social media companies). The market has become more mature and people starts to realise that there has never been a truly “free service” by Google or Facebook. As Viviane Reding poses it: we pay the service with our data.

To be fair, these companies never have said that they didn’t use people’s data for different purposes, including making tons of money. However, what people are noticing now is how obscure and careless firms have been in the management of this data – and how vulnerable they are when their minds can be read by data mining companies such as Cambridge Analytic with the controversial, and at the same time, brilliant experiment conducted by Kosinski et al (2015).

People are also realising how social media creates a subtle form of surveillance, by letting unknown organisations to access their view of the world, their relationships and their tastes. By impacting serious decisions like votes in a general election, for example, or referendums, the public opinion starts realising the risks of manipulation in this cycle of data transparency – data mining – campaign management.

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How corporate discourse can be deconstructed in a social media crisis: my PhD thesis is more actual than ever

I can see how the lessons that I learned with my PhD thesis, presented in the end of 2015, is now more actual and necessary than ever. The key themes of the thesis were crisis management, social media, branding and online reputation management, which I approached using a study case and content analysis of a major advertising campaign aired in 2011 by a leading Spanish bank. This campaign was ridiculed by social media users, especially in Twitter, and was also a target of a YouTube parody video.

Following up my thesis, there have been several incidents happening to prestigious brands similar to this one. Chevron´s “We agree” (2010) was mocked by activist group The Yes Men, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to create a fake version of the campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media as authentic. More recently, another “faux pas” examples could be when Coca-Cola was forced to withdraw a Twitter advertising campaign after a counter-campaign by Gawker tricked it into tweeting large chunks of the introduction to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And exactly during the following week of my thesis presentation, it was IBM that faced social media´s anger: IBM has discontinued a campaign encouraging women to get into technology by asking them to “hack a hairdryer”, which the company admitted the campaign “missed the mark for some” and apologised. There are a plethora of cases more recently, and I presented an update of the thesis with more examples in a conference in Lisbon in October 2017.

Why a communication initiative can be a factor of risk for a company?

Usually, companies only sponsor messages that can affect positively its image. However, in these times of social media activism and permanent criticism, this goal is not easily achieved as in the pre-social media era. In the case study I analysed in my thesis and backed up by the literature review,  what I found was:

  1. A primary goal for corporate communication, used as a management function, is to facilitate relationships and symbolic exchanges with the stakeholders of an organisation, and thus establish and maintain a favourable reputation. Increasingly, corporate communication has taken on a more strategic role within organisations in order to help to legitimate them among its stakeholders through impression management techniques. However, at the same time the context of corporate communications has been levelled off by the proliferation of content generated by users on the Internet, which also affects stakeholder’s perceptions, through framing techniques
  2. When this happens, social media can empower consumer and other stakeholder’s resistance, especially social movements, creating reputational risks and crises caused or amplified by online social networks. Organisations must be concerned about these crises  (or “paracrises” as Coombs defines it) and their impact on reputation and legitimacy due to the evolution of the concept of Surveillance Society, where anyone with a mobile phone can now “surveil the surveillers”.
  3. Organisations are increasingly subject of higher public scrutiny by social networks whose some of their users(for any reason) have a strong distrust in corporate discourse and can build and share a counter-discourse. Through their actions on the Internet, social networking operatives make organisations more publicly vulnerable by exposing the contradictions of the corporate rhetoric and creating antagonistic frames for the corporate discourse. Typical rhetoric devices used by activists are brandjacking, parodies or culture jamming.

My thesis addressed a paradigmatic case study that took place in Spain with a large bank (Bankia) and its major advertising campaign which aired in 2011 during the global financial crisis. Similar to the examples mentioned in the beginning of this post, this campaign was heavily criticised (but it was not pulled). Through the data mining and analysis of messages dispersed via Twitter  during the campaign period(more than 30,000), I found empirical evidence that shows how corporate discourse can be deconstructed by social media users, which is a basic principle of online activists and its repertoire of confrontation.

What I found is that when a company does not take into consideration the shared cognitive capital of the message recipients and the social context in which the organisation operates they are more vulnerable to be contradicted by messages disseminated by social media users that, naturally, question the credibility and intentions of the source and its corporate messages.

In cases with these characteristics, communications do not act as a positive force in favour of the brand and the reputation of the organisation. It works contrarily to what is expected, i.e. it is a shoot in the foot.