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What have we done? The unintended consequences of the internet

The debate at the Marketing Association Digital Conversations Networking event last week was certainly impassioned. There was a lot of thought-provoking opinions, passionate discussion, and even a little swearing for good measure. What were we discussing that caused such hot debate? The unintended consequences of the internet and social media, and what role we have to play as marketers. I thought I'd share some of the key takeaways from the event, some interesting insights from the panelists and throw in a couple of my personal thoughts to boot.

Following a similar panel discussion at AI-Day and talks at the recent SXSW conference in Texas, I arrived thinking that we might just be on the precipice of change here. That there is something stirring around us all regarding the idea of a new internet and media ecosystem that could be more ethical and less toxic. By the end of the discussion my sense was that people certainly see the need for change, and want it, but it's quite a complex topic and how we bring about this change is uncertain.

How did we get here?

For the past 10 years, marketers have, with increasing eagerness, invested our marketing dollars in social platforms (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube), that we have come to realise are in fact incentivised to turn users into radical robots. These platforms use algorithms that are designed to elicit an emotional response and make people more and more engaged in a particular topic, whether it be flower arranging or white supremacy, to keep them hooked and show them more ads.

Essentially, we have perpetuated a broken media landscape by gradually moving our marketing dollars away from traditional media platforms that are governed and held to high professional standards, to social platforms that are completely uncensored and unregulated. So, what were we thinking and what did we really expect?

To be honest, I'm fairly sure we thought we were all doing the right thing by putting our brand in front of as many eyeballs as possible, enabling two-way engagement, and getting incredible bang for our marketing buck.

But what happens when social media goes wrong, and when we face potentially placing our brand in the company of fake news and harmful content?

The Christchurch terrorist effect

The terrorist attacks that took place in Christchurch on Friday 15th March not only shocked us in New Zealand but had a huge impact the world over. Not just because it was a horrific tragedy, but because it was orchestrated specifically for social media. The terrorist strapped on a go-pro and live-streamed his attack for the world to see, and unfortunately, it took too long before Facebook was convinced to shut it down.

The main telcos in New Zealand took steps to shut down websites sharing the shocking content, and in the aftermath, many companies pulled social media advertising due to a lack of trust in those platforms and potential negative backlash.

But what happens now? Will companies who took a stand after Christchurch be able to compete without social media advertising? How long until they come back?

Data privacy

It's not just extremism and harmful content that is causing uneasiness. There is also increased concern around data privacy and security. The Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal was possibly the most controversial and wide-reaching data breach that had huge consequences. It not only shook our trust in social media but left us questioning the possibility of true democracy for our future.

In the marketing world, we are contending with shadow profiling, where data is either collected unethically or without our knowledge, as well as the risk of data security breaches that have potentially disastrous effects. The question is, how many marketers will say no to using data collected by shadow profiling or advanced targeting?

Human nature

Some on the panel suggested that the problem is that humans are particularly awful creatures. That we have hideous inner desires, and the anonymity and distance of the internet allows us to unleash those inclinations with very little consequence.

While I understand their point, and agree on the topic of anonymity, I don't think I quite agree with that entire sentiment. For the most part, I think that human beings are inherently good, and that unfortunately there are always a few bad eggs that ruin it for the many.

Dumb consumers

Another suggestion was that consumers are essentially dumb. That they don't know what is really happening when they are on social media or the internet. How their online behaviour is being logged, with the aim of providing a better customer experience, but logged nonetheless.

As marketers, we know that with the advancements and commoditisation of technology, customer expectations have increased. They now demand a more personalised and relevant experience - and to deliver on that expectation we need to collect data, so that we can improve our products and services and deliver an outstanding customer experience.

I think many consumers do understand, and in this increasingly digital world, they are happy to share their data in exchange for making connections, finding more information, and receiving better services. Millennials, in particular, are happy to opt in if they are getting perceived value. The key here though, is that in exchange for their data, they expect us to treasure it - to keep it safe and secure and use it only for good.

So, what happens now?

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks brands from New Zealand and around the world are saying "enough is enough". We've witnessed bold moves from the likes of Lush removing themselves from social media completely, as well as P&G suggesting an approach for a new media supply chain.

Closer to home Government fund managers, the Commercial Communications Council, and Association of NewZealand Advertisers have called for social media companies to “fulfill their duty of care to prevent harm to their users and to society,” and for the Government to take the lead in ensuring social media platforms are regulated appropriately.

However, as one panelist pointed out, regulation can be painfully slow, and she has no faith in regulators to deal with how fast technology moves. So, can we really rely on regulation or do we need to believe in our own collective ability to self-regulate?

As another panelist eloquently put it "There is a moment where we have to be accountable for the money we spend, and in the end, we hope that empathy and kindness and doing the right thing will grow our business".

For the marketers out there - I'd love to hear your thoughts on this boiling cauldron of the internet, social media and data privacy. Do you think attitudes are changing? Are you or your business reconsidering your media choices? This is a topic I've had many an interesting conversation on over the last few weeks, and one that I'm sure we'll see play out in the coming months and years.

For the rest of you - you probably didn't realise we were such a philosophical bunch, did you? Either way, I think this is an interesting debate and an essential one that we all need to have - marketer or not.

A big thanks to our MC and panelists:

MC - Chris MacDonald

Vincent Heeringa, Anthem

Kat Cox, YoungShand

Duncan Shand, YoungShand

Jo Pitts, Motam

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