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The Techlash: The Great Confusion

The battle for our personal data is intensifying.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Techlash is a problem — but who’s the enemy?

People are getting frustrated with algorithms and the exploits of our personal information to influence our thinking and actions.

The Techlash is here.

But where should we be focusing our attention? Big tech companies are doing what they can to earn more money. Legislators are doing what they can to secure more control. And users are exchanging their personal information in exchange for free services.

Who’s the enemy?

Let’s take a closer look:

Table of Contents

    A Strong Emotional Reaction

    In a Facebook discussion yesterday, several people I would consider intelligent and thoughtful individuals argued that social media companies would destroy our society — if left unchecked for ten more years.

    Yes, social media divides us, but is it also “destroying our society”?

    The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal broke the last seal and stirred our emotions. It broke open a can of silicon worms. And there’s no shortage of social media issues to discuss:

    Examples of Social Media Issues

    Social media ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. With massive change come new types of issues we must deal with.

    Here are a few examples of social media issues:

    Read also: Social Media: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

    Were the social media pessimists correct?
    Was techlash always the foregone conclusion?

    Techlash - Anonymous for 15 Minutes
    Is this the new normal to come?

    Blue State Digital and the 2004 US Election

    Before taking a closer look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal, let’s start with Blue State Digital. 1According to BlueState’s website: “We move people to elect presidents, change laws, fall in love with brands, donate millions, and more.”

    Blue State Digital was founded by former staffers of Howard Dean’s 2004 US presidential campaign and provided digital services for the 2008 and 2012 US presidential campaigns for Barack Obama.

    So, what does Blue State Digital’s software do for a political campaign? Well, it’s like a large-scale CRM system with programmable automation rules.

    For instance, if someone donates $5 to the campaign, this person will be automatically targeted with a string of messages different from the series you would be targeted for if you donated, say, $50 instead.

    Of course, donating money is one way to interact digitally with a political campaign.

    But there are many other triggers, too.

    You could interact with the candidate on social media, sign up for their newsletter, or be affiliated with the party or the president in some other shape or form. 2Back in 2010, several Scandinavian political organisations became interested in Blue State Digital. But perhaps the Scandinavian countries’ population was too small for these technologies. I … Continue reading

    I first came in contact with the immense power of big data in 2007. I was responsible for launching a Swedish online service to verify broadband speeds (Bredbandskollen). Later in 2009, my employer, Springtime, acquired Early October to use their proprietary technology Social Media Lounge for online monitoring.

    A few years later, around 2012, still long before the Techlash, everyone was talking about the potential of “big data”, but not many people understood the implications.

    Beyond Basic Demographics

    Cambridge Analytica was founded in 2013. Their business model was similar to Blue State Digital, focusing on data mining, brokerage, and analysis — plus some high-end consulting. 3This is also similar to the social media intelligence agency Whispr Group, founded in New York by Joakim Leijon in 2010, where I served as the COO between 2010-2013.

    Segmenting people based on their communicative behaviour is extremely powerful than traditional demographic segmentation. 4For a more in-depth explanation of behavioural segmentation, see The Publics in Public Relations..

    But it wasn’t only the data-mining companies that could sense potential. So did the social networking sites.

    As Facebook did their IPO in 2012, it took the lead and embarked on an aggressive journey to monetise social media usage.

    In short: Facebook went hard for the advertising dollar.

    As such, advertising is hardly a new monetisation model, but Facebook transformed the self-servicing targeting functions. With Facebook moving forward aggressively, Cambridge Analytica decided to take a shortcut. 5Anyone involved in programmatic advertising should already be familiar with Facebook’s Business Manager and its targeting capabilities..

    The Cambridge Analytica Scandal

    An external researcher approached Facebook and told them he was collecting data for academic purposes.

    For his “study”, he launched a Facebook app called Your Digital Life.

    The app was used by some 270,000 users who were permitted to collect data on their friends, which allowed the app to mine data on some 87M users.

    And then, somehow, this data ended up in Cambridge Analytica’s database.

    Still, there’s more to the Cambridge Analytica story:

    Cambridge Analytica’s founders and investors were the conservative pundits Steve Bannon. Bannon divested his holdings in the company in April 2017 when he was appointed White House Chief Strategist. Still, at that point, he had already been working as the CEO for Donald Trump’s presidential bid in August 2016.

    And what software did they use to persuade the American opinion to vote for Trump?

    Cambridge Analytica, of course.

    To run a US presidential campaign on the back of illegally (and unethically) acquired data was, of course, a scandal in its own right.

    However, what got under people’s skin was the actual data analysis:

    With many data points on US citizens, Cambridge Analytica matched behavioural data with psychographic characteristics.

    From psychographic studies and test results (such as Myers-Briggs and The Big Five Aspects Scale), it’s possible to assign people to groups based on how they have behaved in the past and how they’re predicted to be active in the future. It gave them answers on who to target and how to trigger them psychologically.

    The whole scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica brought the general public and politicians one step closer to understanding the immense power of big data.

    Before Cambridge Analytica, many people believed that the power of big social networking companies had more to do with their direct access to people’s attention.

    Suddenly, people quickly started to acknowledge the immense power of these silent miners—and the techlash seemed to be here to stay.

    The Techlash is Here To Stay

    Expect a power struggle between the big tech companies on the one side—and legislators and the news media on the other.

    In the wake of the scandal, Cambridge Analytica closed its operations in 2018. Several executives moved to Emerdata, owned by the same parent company and residing in the same building in London.

    But the Techlash have already gained too much momentum to be stopped. 6Techlash, according to Financial Times: “(noun) The growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents.”

    This is a war for our minds:

    Shall we be social media optimists, or shall we be social media pessimists?

    ANNOTATIONS
    ANNOTATIONS
    1 According to BlueState’s website: “We move people to elect presidents, change laws, fall in love with brands, donate millions, and more.”
    2 Back in 2010, several Scandinavian political organisations became interested in Blue State Digital. But perhaps the Scandinavian countries’ population was too small for these technologies. I guess that nations much smaller than the US will decide to wait.
    3 This is also similar to the social media intelligence agency Whispr Group, founded in New York by Joakim Leijon in 2010, where I served as the COO between 2010-2013.
    4 For a more in-depth explanation of behavioural segmentation, see The Publics in Public Relations.
    5 Anyone involved in programmatic advertising should already be familiar with Facebook’s Business Manager and its targeting capabilities.
    6 Techlash, according to Financial Times: “(noun) The growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents.”
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
    Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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