This article was originally posted on PRNEWS here.
A frightening thought occurred to me while watching The Great Hack, the Netflix documentary about Cambridge Analytica. If you can interfere with an election by weaponizing communications, what could communications companies do with the same data capabilities? It’s inevitable that communications firms will gain access to the ability to weaponize data in a way companies have never had before, making a new ethical approach critical to preventing the disaster that could occur if we adopt an “anything goes” attitude.
Of course, using information to guide messaging is nothing new. Processing data, such as magazine subscriptions and hunting licenses, to profile consumers has been going on for decades, as has targeting messages at people profiled to be receptive by the data collected on them.
And neither is the sharing of techniques between campaigns and commerce anything new. In fact, innovation in communication has always cycled from the business world to politics and back again. In the 1960s, journalists seemed shocked that politicians were hiring ad firms to sell them “like soap,” and the “I’m a Mac”/”I’m a PC” campaign was just a clever execution of political attack ads.
And influence operations, or “the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent,” has long been a staple of state warcraft, according to Senate testimony offered by Rand Waltzman of the RAND Corporation in 2017. It’s hardly unusual, though generally unwelcome if not illegal, for one country to covertly influence another country’s elections.
What is new isn’t just that Russia has used technology to weaponize these methods in an ongoing effort to destabilize western democracies — it’s that now all of these tools are also available to communications companies. Psychologically profiling consumers to get them to buy products is child’s play. The data is more nuanced and easier to get. Now, thanks to this weaponization of communications by state actors, a communications company could conceivably destabilize a competitor or do so on behalf of a client.
This is not speculative futuristic talk about jetpacks (though they’re real now too). Russian-style information operations have crossed over into marketing communications. In a recent exposé, Quartz reported how IDEIA, a communications company weaponizing data as Cambridge Analytica did, isn’t just helping political parties on several continents but also three multinational banks. For those who know how to collect data and deploy it in communications, this isn’t just inevitable, but easy.
That’s why it is time for a new ethical approach to psychological profiling in strategic communications. This technology gives our industry the ability to act amorally and with dark purposes. Without a strong and explicit ethics code, the communications industry would fail society at the exact moment we are expected to help brands engage with the vital issues of our day.
This would be a radical departure from the current paradigm in which western democracies and markets are unable to restrict the bad actors, which have been foreign states. Now, when we talk about stopping the deliberate spread of disinformation, we focus on the platforms where they are shared or attempt to increase the media literacy of the public sharing the misinformation.
The recent move by the leaders of almost 200 publicly held companies to sign onto a new, more holistic business paradigm increases the need to protect ourselves from this new capability of mass defamation. Adopting a mindset that takes into account the well-being of customers, workers, suppliers, and the environment is a new ethical framework all on its own. Preventing the weaponization of communications fits easily onto that framework.
To be sure, prior restraint of speech is forbidden in many western democracies, and weaponized communication enjoys greater latitude in politics than in commerce, where libel and slander laws still apply. Those laws should be updated to account for these new technological realities, and whistleblower protections should be strengthened. Smart regulations should be considered, and penalties should be scaled to the size of the potential damage. But regardless of what others do, we need to regulate ourselves because we best know the value we bring to our clients and what must be preserved.
Like any weapon, the new capabilities that metadata offers marketing communications are formidable and potentially useful, but they are also certainly dangerous. With greater power comes greater responsibility, as the saying goes, and it is up to us to meet this moment with a new ethical framework to prevent bad actors from doing damage with weaponized communications.