Don’t you know? Talking about a revolution sounds like a whisper. Tracy Chapman is an extraordinary musician, though listening to this song recently, I wonder whether she could have conceived that her very words could also be used to describe a revolution of a digital kind, where our data is silently being harvested and sold, until one day we find, it’s too late.
This week I will be discussing ethics in relation to digital marketing and our experience as consumers engaging with the internet. I know I’m not alone when I say I am both concerned about my data privacy and at the same time, am all too flippant about what I choose to share online (particularly when it comes to signing in to third party applications with my Facebook account). My brother (who has never had a social media account) and my partner (who refuses to use Google) were hardly surprised when Facebook was involved with Cambridge Analytica (potentially influencing the US election) as, if, yeah, of course, how could you not know something like that would happen? It shook me though, and I imagine a lot of others, who were comfortably living in a bubble of digital ease, never imagining that they could be the product, so easily manipulated.
But in a way, that’s the very issue – social media and digital connectivity is just so easy and over the course of the last 10-15 years, has completely penetrated our lives. All of my international friends use Facebook and it’s one of the easiest ways for us to keep in touch. One could argue too, that we chose this, that we as adults continually made (informed) decisions to give parts of ourselves to others (and it’s all there in the fine print). But what if those sharing their data online are children? It’s articles such as these, from the Sunshine Coast Daily that really do worry me. To summarise, 56 percent of children 8-13 are circumventing age restrictions and creating accounts with fake ages, meaning that they are not only potentially exposed to damaging content, but are sharing details of their lives from a very vulnerable age, which could in turn expose them to online predators or identify theft. If online predators are something you are interested in, I highly recommend you watch Catfish, which is a very weird but intriguing ‘documentary’, entirely relevant to the world we live in now.
To that end, Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the internet – an open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic boundaries – seems to have come true, however there is also this parallel future unravelling, the world wide web is a juxtaposition of light and dark. As Berners-Lee states, ‘we are so used to these systems being manipulated that people just think that’s how the internet works. We need to think about what it should be like. One of the problems with climate change is getting people to realise it was anthropogenic – created by people. It’s the same problem with social networks – they are manmade. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed.’
So where do marketers stand in all of this? Well, I would argue, on a very delicate line, between influence and manipulation. Market research has entered an entirely new territory with digitisation. No longer are researchers simply observing patrons in a café behind a carefully placed newspaper-disguise, but they are able to track eye movement across a website, analyse digital facial expressions and translate them into emotions with AI, use analytics tools to investigate online search behaviour (the real goldmine) and conduct sentiment analyses from social media and public forums. In further understanding the inner-workings of consumers’ minds, advertising can become increasingly targeted. Information is power.
Of course, targeted advertising in itself is a bit of an ethical conundrum. On the one hand, it could offer a timely reminder to purchase something you were genuinely interested in, but on the other, what if the person being targeted is in some way vulnerable (whether that be through mental illness, disability or age) or unable to control their impulses? An elderly person for instance, unaware of the implication of their actions (clicking buttons seems so easy and harmless) or a game-addicted teenager, using their parent’s credit card or all of their pocket money on in-game microtransactions? There really are almost too many ethical situations to explore and they are all equally disheartening. So is there anything we can do to save the internet?
Well, Jaron Lanier seems to think so. He suggests that because the internet began as a free platform, businesses such as Google and Facebook were ‘forced’ to go down the road of advertisement-generated revenue and that if we as consumers demanded (deleted our accounts), they could be ‘forced’ once again to change. That we have the power to drive ethical behaviour and accountability in terms of data protection and our right to privacy. Here’s hoping he’s right.
A wise lecturer of mine once said, ‘ethical behaviour is a privilege not all have’. How do you feel about behaving ethically as a marketer? Is ethics something you would consider when you start working in industry? Let me know your thoughts in the comments on the sidebar.