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Limits to what those reams of consumer data can do

Users of social media should now have the levers to control what they want public

Gulf News

Data has become known as the new oil … and for a good reason. After all, it wins elections.

That at least was the assertion of Cambridge Analytica, a UK-headquartered data analytics firm. In its marketing collateral, it prominently states that: “CA is a global leader in behaviour change campaigns. We offer a proven combination of behavioural psychology, data analytics and digital marketing, to drive voters to the polls and win elections.”

Mere hype? Not if you have been following the recent revelations about the firm’s involvement in Trump’s triumph. CA’s corporate brochure states that it has managed to influence more than 100 electoral outcomes, mainly in Africa and Asia.

CA’s unprecedented success has been succeeded by an abrupt fall from grace, following a whistle-blower’s testimony about unethical practices the company used to obtain troves of data from Facebook to use during the US presidential campaign.

But could have CA done this incredible data heist without the consent of Facebook itself? Investigators on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to ascertain the extent of Facebook’s willing collaboration. Which begs the question — Could this be the beginning of the end for social media’s dominance in the advertising mix?

Facebook recently changed its algorithm in a move that will significantly hamper advertisers’ reach. Some of the changes include page demotion in instances where content is deemed as using engagement-bait tactics, such as asking users to react to a post through likes, sharing, tagging or commenting.

The new policy will affect sponsored and organic posts of brands which will now need to increase investments to maintain their posts’ existing engagement levels, which in the best of occasions do not exceed 1 per cent. Facebook claims that the changes were made in an effort to live up to its true values of connecting people and helping friends and families keep in touch.

But the real reason behind these changes is hidden behind the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which compromised 50 million data sets from Facebook. This is the biggest personal data theft in history to assist its client achieve an objective — win the US presidential elections.

I must admit that in early 2017, I was smitten by CA’s unique methodology. The company seemingly had managed to redefine advertising by moving the needle from mass to individual targeting through a proprietary behavioural psychology model empowered by unfettered access to data. At that point, it was reportedly legally obtained through a variety of sources and records, including social media channels.

During the course of 2017, the now deposed CEO, Alexander Nix, headlined almost every major international digital marketing conference with keynote speeches, detailing CA’s methodology and boasting about his involvement in the Trump campaign. For almost a year, he was heralded as the rock star of the advertising world — a pioneer of a new world communication order.

In one of the many interviews of that period, Nix stated: “Advertising is going to be replaced by highly targeted, very personalised advertising, and that has to be data-driven. That’s not replacing of creativity, that’s using data to augment creativity. Data first, then creativity. It’s linear.”

The sound of that message to advertising audiences worldwide was deafening, and I was just one of the professionals who took notice. My curiosity and becoming part of the future led me to instigate a meeting with Nix. To my surprise, my invitation was accepted. He wanted to meet me as the door-opener for a potential business opportunity for CA.

I was highly disappointed when he cancelled our meeting just before it was due to happen. But in retrospect, and following last month’s incredible twist, I feel relieved that he kept his distance.

The CA case has already had a profound adverse effect on the credibility of social media and the way this advertising channel will be used in the future for commercial or political ends. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent apology to Facebook’s users and assurances that their data will never be compromised again shows that the power is still with the people. And it is the people who will ultimately decide on whose side they are.

The writer is an integrated communications consultant and author of “Back to the Future of Marketing — PRovolve or Perish”.