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.

A Conservative case for Corbyn

The road to revolution (part 6)

My wife has a long-standing friend from university called Ian, a prosperous solicitor working in Manchester, in his late 60s like me, not only a lifelong Conservative, but one of those steady, unflappable people, who knows what he believes and it doesn’t change. He is considering voting for Jeremy Corbyn at the next election. I have an equally long record of quiet, steadfast support for the Conservatives, and I am also considering voting for Jeremy Corbyn.   Continue reading

Globalism and democracy

The road to revolution (part 4)

It was all so simple when I was growing up. Britain was a democracy, able freely to change its political course at general elections. Our friends, the Americans, had a similar democracy. Our slightly less good friends in continental Europe were attempting to maintain stable democracies for the first time, bless them. Most other countries had dictators, and Russia and China had Red dictators, so they were completely beyond the pale.   Continue reading

Wheels grind slowly

The road to revolution (part 1)

Two articles in The Guardian on 27 February have prompted a train of thought that I want to explore in a series of blogs. To be exact, they have not so much prompted a train of thought as gathered up assorted locomotives and carriages that have been rattling ineffectually round my mind for several years and assembled them into something that might pass for a train.   Continue reading

Dancing around Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time is, alternatively, a masterpiece (to be ranked, according to Tariq Ali of all people, alongside the works of Stendahl, Balzac and Proust) or an inconsequential snob’s chronicle. It is a Marmite of a novel sequence. Powell himself (no relation) divided his readers into ‘fans’ and ‘shits’, which seems rather extreme. It also leaves readers, like myself, who admire some of the 12 novels but not others, in undefined limbo. I would call myself a ‘fant’ – more fan than shit.   Continue reading

The Times it is a’ changin’

I had a vague memory of a literary quote to the effect that when a man changes his newspaper after many years it is a seismic event. Since I am now in the process of changing my newspaper, this seemed a good quote to put at the top of this blog, so I Googled it. There was only one result. The quote came from my first novel. Not only do I find it hard to remember what other people write, it seems I can no longer remember what I write myself.   Continue reading

What will we ever learn?

Having missed Ken Burns’s documentary on the Vietnam War when it was first screened, I am watching it on catch-up. What it reveals is a war that was even more harrowing than it seemed at the time. Vietnam was the defining war of my generation, and probably of the entire post-1945 period. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the main one is that it was a conscript war, opposed by many of those who were conscripted.   Continue reading