Steve Dempsey: Psychological profiling rise is even more worrying than fake news
In 1915, the Chicago Day Book ran an editorial with the headline "Fake News". The piece quaintly outlines false reports of cabinet discussions and implies that a lot of what's passed off as news isn't a statement of fact, but an attempt to influence public opinion.
It concludes: "Some day the people of this country will demand as much protection against unadulterated news as they now get against unadulterated food for the stomach. What goes into the mind is quite as important as what goes into the stomach."
So fake news is nothing new. But in the digital age, where media outlets have ceded control of distribution of news to the likes of Google and Facebook, it's being augmented with the likes of automated bots, psychological profiling, and multivariant messaging.
Fake news has hogged the headlines, but these other tactics are perhaps even more worrying, and may end up having a greater effect on marketing and communications. What's the best way to understand how the full fake news ecosystem hangs together? You guessed it, by looking at Donald Trump's election campaign.
Trump eschewed the traditional approach to campaigning - appealing to the broadest number of voters through traditional media. Instead, he inspired passion, anger, righteous indignation. So TV news programs gave wall-to-wall coverage to every outrageous and inflammatory statement on the campaign trail. Data analytics firm mediaQuant estimated that this free airtime was worth $5bn (€4.75bn). Pretty good going when you consider Trump's campaign reportedly spent $322m (€306m) in total.
Of that, $85m (€80m) went on digital and online advertising. Some of that money was invested in the profiling powers of a company called Cambridge Analytica. The company, which identifies, engages and persuades voters, was used by Ted Cruz before Trump became the Republican candidate. It boasts that it has 5,000 data points on every voter in the United States.
Last year, its chief executive, Alexander Nix, gave Marketing Magazine a taste of how it works. Having identified a small cadre of voters who felt strongly that photo IDs should be shown at polling stations, the company tailored messages that would turn this niche issue into something that would motivate voters to come out for Cruz. "For people in the 'temperamental' personality group, who tend to dislike commitment messaging on the issue, you should take the line that showing your ID to vote is 'as easy as buying a case of beer'," Nix said. Whereas the right message for people in the 'stoic traditionalist' group, who have strongly-held conventional views, is that showing your ID in order to vote is simply part of the privilege of living in a democracy."
By the time that Cruz was toast and the Trump presidential campaign was in full swing, Cambridge Analytica was reportedly serving around 50,000 of these multivariant ads on a daily basis and were continuously measuring and optimising their performance.
Research from Oxford University also found that Trump's campaign deployed five times more chatbots than Hillary Clinton's in the run up to the election. These are the megaphones that amplify the stories hosted on fake news websites. That, or they just sling mud. The top 20 automated accounts created over 1,300 tweets a day on average in the run up to the election and were found to be more effective at spreading negative news than positive stories.
So here's the question; is this type of campaigning indicative of how traditional loyalties to political parties and political messaging has broken down? And will brands and marketers increasingly find it profitable to follow Trump's lead?
Yes, there's something here for challenger brands, but it's not an approach that will work for all. Undoubtedly, there is a new political playbook being written here. At worst it can result in populism over policies, polarisation over political discourse. But let's be honest, it may result in more people engaging in politics, even if the methods of engaging them are manipulative in the extreme.
But in a marketing sphere the means may not justify the end. Certainly, fake news and spammy chatbots aren't good bets for customer retention. So the issue really relates to psychological profiling. Of course, this goes on now, and consumers are rightly getting increasingly concerned about online privacy. So it's doubtful that they'll stomach being tracked and manipulated by brands at a level that would make Big Brother blush.
Sunday Indo Business