Categorized for Exploitation: Social Media Has Decided Who You Are

Rich consumer data is key to attracting customers, increasing sales and building loyalty. ‘Knowing’ your customer creates efficiencies in advertising spend. And, of course, when it works, everyone is happy. But with the advent of social media we now need to ask if it’s working too well? Or has it gone rogue?

Hiccups in the processing of advertising data have historically been benign. Have you ever purchased a book,  say on baseball, via Amazon only to be retargeted helmets and bats.? Or have you seen ads for the new ‘My Little Pony’ movie because you haven’t switched over your Netflix profile?

Sometimes ‘algorithmic fails’ can be more insidious. I once received an email from LinkedIn recommending I connect with my departed grandparents. LinkedIn, having convinced my mother to share her contacts, likely created a ‘profile’  for my grandparents. But they had passed away years before. Brand loyalty was damaged but I moved on.

Social Media Data Turned Dark

The recent saga surrounding Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Russia and Trump has produced a much more dystopian scenario.

Facebook’s much lauded ‘social graph’ is more personal, more nuanced and diverges from just what you buy, eat, and ‘like’ to making assumptions about your values, and beliefs. You are also ascribed a ‘tribe’ via data collection and segmentation regardless of whether you agree with the designation.

It’s no longer just cereal makers, auto insurance brokers and the Gap, You are being targeted by political campaigns and foreign governments. Pitching me shoes and wrinkle cream has morphed into the dark art of deciding what I value and believe.

who do they think you are?

What should consumers do? It’s not just the data being collected as we interact with social media (although it’s really important to be highly aware of this) we are being ‘categorized’ and pit against one another.

Facebook having decided I am a ‘shoe person’ is unlikely to cause arguments between friends who may disagree on the utility of a pump, It starts to gets more complex and disturbing, though, when the service bits belief against belief.

This discovery stopped me in my tracks (and ended my relationship with Facebook). Within the advertising settings (settings -> account settings -> ads -> your information -> review and manage your categories) I found myself tagged as Liberal (Extreme).

I’m quite a bit more to the center; but that’s not the issue. Facebook decided what content is both liberal and extreme. I’ve shared and consumed topics from women’s issues and sensible gun laws to parenting topics and a concern about president Trump here and there. What expert decides the mix of issues that are liberal and extreme?

Categorized for a new breed of advertiser

And this is where data collection, and its exploitation, have gone very wrong. It seeks to get us to line up, pick a side and a fight. It marginalizes, coerces and makes us question who we are. My naive shares put me in an advertiser bucket. Extreme, Liberal, A clear target of a paying Facebook client’s spend (regardless of which side of an issue this client is on — I don’t get to choose). And that, folks, is how it’s all gone down of late.

The issue runs wide, deep and is incredibly worrisome. The key to remember, though, is that social media sites like Facebook are ‘free’ but nothing in life comes without a cost.  While it sounds obvious, we forgot to check what we were giving up. What Faustian deal have we made?. If we don’t stay alert to what we are giving up it will come with unexpected and unintended consequences far wider than what we see today.