Revelations of the bleeding obvious

Hot News!!! Media company sells advertising data! Shock!!! Political party targets voters! Scandal!!! Ad firm claims to have been successful!  

I do love it when the media stumble across a piece of news that, to them, is the most fiendish piece of commercial skulduggery they have ever come across, but which is in fact an everyday occurrence that has been going on for decades and is viewed as commonplace by its practitioners. When the victims (I am referring here to the media companies, not to you and me) are then forced to stand up and apologise for the crime of doing what they do, that is highly entertaining too.

Yes, there are some serious issues here, if you search hard enough amidst all the flibbery-flabbery. But not half as many as is made out.

Let’s start with the basics. Advertisers, and that includes political parties, have looked for cost-effective ways to target their audience since time began. That has always involved psychological profiling. An advertising strategy has always defined its target market in terms not only of demographics, but also of attitudes, behaviour and emotions. Advertisers have frequently produced different messages, aimed at different parts of their target market, appearing in different media. If that is sinister, it has been sinister for well over a century.

The problem, until recently, was that most mainstream media – TV, press, posters – were blunt instruments. Some finessing of audience and message was possible, but not a great deal. But there has always been direct mail: targeted communications through the post. Many large companies built their business through direct mail. The printing and postage made it expensive to reach each individual but, if you knew who your targets were and where they lived, it could be highly cost-effective. Sound familiar?

There were companies, and no doubt still are, that would sell you mailing lists. I used them frequently. When I was selling fashion jewellery, I bought lists of boutiques. When I was a business consultant, I bought lists of small businesses. When I was trying to attract local schools to a stately home, I bought lists of primary schools. These may all have been examples of business-to-business mailings, but – had I needed to – I could equally well have bought lists of private individuals, broken down by age, sex, region, social status, occupation, or whatever I wanted. There was nothing unusual about this, and nothing illegal either.

How did these companies assemble their lists in the first place? By harvesting data, as it is now so bucolically put. Every time we were rash enough to pass on our address (or telephone number, come to that), which we all did in a hundred ways without thinking about it, there was a chance we would end up on a mailing list. Or hundreds of mailing lists. In those quaint old days before junk email, stamped, named, addressed envelopes plopped through our letter boxes on a regular basis. Did we pause to ask how the company knew who we were and where we lived and why we might be interested in their product? Probably not.

So none of this is new. What is new, of course, is the scale of it, and the method of delivery. Advertisers can now target individuals, and individual attitudes, far more specifically and cost-effectively than before. But they have not invented the wheel.

When the suitably reptilian Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica claimed to have won the US election for Donald Trump, he was making the sort of boast that Maurice Saatchi and Philip Gould could have made repeatedly, had they been so inclined. It was probably not true, although with any election that is as close-run as that one was, any of a number of factors could have combined to tip the balance.

Which is not to say that the intelligent use of social media was not fundamental to Trump’s victory. I’m sure it was. As it was to Obama’s victories and to Corbyn’s near victory, as was reported widely at the time. The intelligent use of social media is now fundamental to any mass campaign, political or otherwise. But was Cambridge Analytica’s messaging really so devilishly clever that it could get inside the psyche of everyone who might have voted for Trump and find precisely the right trigger to make them do so? No. Maybe we’ll reach that point some day, but we haven’t reached it yet.

I’m not on Facebook, nor likely to be any time soon. So I don’t know precisely what information might be sought from me, or from my friends. I expect it would be enough to tell which messages might appeal to me and which might not. I would be amazed if it could provide enough reliable information to construct the multiplicity of psychological profiles that has been suggested (and, in the case of Alexander Nix, claimed).

Which leaves us with Mark Zuckerberg, who still looks and sounds as if he’s playing truant from school. To its users, Facebook is free. But, as always, freedom has its price. Its database is its revenue stream. That has always been the case, and will remain the case unless the law is changed, and everybody now knows it.

Again, this is not new; only the scale and detail are new. TV companies used to give advertising agencies all the data they had on their audiences. Newspapers did the same. Media owners have always given advertisers all the information they had. Advertisers have always paid for exposure. Whether it’s in the form of airtime or data is largely immaterial. It’s just that there’s now so much more data, and it’s more personal and more expensive.

Facebook has certainly been careless and cavalier with its data. It has been opaque about how its data is used. The whole area of social media regulation is both hugely important and very difficult. However, the use of mass political campaigns of character assassination under the cloak of anonymity is a far greater scandal. But if Congress wants to deal with that disgrace, it needs to summon the Supreme Court judges to testify, not Mark Zuckerberg.