Category: Media and journalism

Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and data: was it illegal, does that matter?

For the last year Carole Cadwalladr at the Observer has been doing a very important job exposing the activities of Cambridge Analytica and its role in creating targeted political advertising using data sourced, primarily, from Facebook. It is only now, with the latest revelations published in this week’s Observer, that her work is starting to gain political traction.

This is an exercise in shining a light where a light needs to be shone. The problem however is in illuminating something that is actually illegal. Currently the focus is on the way in which CA obtained the data it then used to create its targeting algorithm and whether this happened with either the consent or knowledge of Facebook or the individuals concerned. But this misses the real issue. The problem with algorithms is not the data that they feed on. The problem is that an algorithm, by its very nature, drives a horse and cart through all of the regulatory frameworks we have in place, mostly because these regulations have data as their starting point. This is one of the reasons why the new set of European data regulations – the GDPR – which come in to force in a couple of months, are unlikely to be much use in preventing US billionaires from influencing elections.

If we look at what CA appear to have been doing, laying aside the data acquisition issue, it is hard to see what is actually illegal. Facebook has been criticised for not being sufficiently rigourous in how it policed the usage of its data but, I would speculate, the reason for this is that CA was not doing anything particularly different from what Facebook itself does with its own algorithms within the privacy of its own algorithmic workshops. The only difference is that Facebook does this to target brand messages (because that is where the money is), whereas CA does it to target political messages. Since the output of the CA activity was still Facebook ads (and thus Facebook revenue), from Facebook’s perspective their work appeared to be little more that a form of outsourcing and thus didn’t initially set-off any major alarm bells.

This is the problem if you make ownership or control of the data the issue – it makes it very difficult to discriminate between what we have come to accept as ‘normal’ brand activities and cyber warfare. Data is data: the issue is not who owns it, it is what you do with it.

We are creating a datafied society, whether we like it or not. Data is becoming ubiquitous and seeking to control data will soon be recognised as a futile exercise. Algorithms are the genes of a datafied society: the billons of pieces of code that at one level all have their specific, isolated, purpose but which, collectively, can come to shape the operation of the entire organism (that organism being society itself). Currently, the only people with the resources or incentive to write society’s algorithmic code are large corporations or very wealthy individuals and they are doing this, to a large extent, outside of the view, scope or interest of either governments or the public. This is the problem. The regulatory starting point therefore needs to be the algorithms, not the data, and creating both transparency and control over their ownership and purpose.

Carol’s work is so important because it brings this activity into view. We should not be distracted or deterred by the desire to detect illegality because this ultimately plays to the agenda of the billionaires. What is happening is very dangerous and that danger cannot be contained by the current legal cage, but it can be constrained by transparency.

Deception, Deflection and Disruption: the new rules of political communication

This is a post I have been meaning to write for at least 18 months. When first conceived it was in part a prediction. Recent events have conspired to make that prediction a reality, which has encouraged me to get it out there. It is post about the three Ds of modern political communication: Deception, Deflection and Disruption.


It all started with Deception. Many people have accused UK Prime Minister Tony Blair of being a liar. In truth, he was far too clever to deserve this label. Calling Tony Blair a liar is a bit like calling a successful poker player a liar. What Tony Blair and a successful poker player have in common is that the practice of deceit is fundamental to their success. Indeed the whole New Labour project was built upon deception. There was, of course, the grand deception designed to create support or justification for the Iraq war but at a more prosaic level there was the deception that New Labour was a party that was going to deliver on any of its promises, when in fact all they were doing was kicking the can down the road – just another variant of TINA (There Is No Alternative) politics. Labour confused being a party of opposition with being a party in opposition, a problem which exists to this day – but that is another story.

The Conservative-lead government of David Cameron learned a lot from New Labour. Continue reading

Gaming democracy

Not far short of three years-ago I published a piece on the Huffington Post which suggested that humans had moved from the age of the sword into the age of the printing press and were about to move into the age of the algorithm. The reason, I suggested, for why a particular form of technology came to shape an age was that each technology conferred an advantage upon an elite or institutionalised group, or at least facilitated the emergence of a such group which could control these technologies in order to achieve dominance.

This is why the algorithm will have its age. Algorithms are extraordinarily powerful but they are difficult things to create. They require highly paid geeks and therefore their competitive advantage will be conferred on those with the greatest personal or institutionalised resource – billionaires, the Russians, billionaire Russians, billionaire Presidents (Russian or otherwise). There is also a seductive attraction between algorithms and subterfuge: they work most effectively when they are invisible. Continue reading

Why YouTube Red is the same as the 1559 Index of Banned Books

It may be difficult to see a connection between the launch of YouTube Red (a subscription paywall behind which its ‘content stars’ have now been imprisoned), the Council of Trent in 1545-63 and the Index of Banned Books (or indeed between the social media ‘Reformation’ and the Protestant Reformation). But there is a connection and it is to do with institutional reactions to new forms of disruptive technology and a desire to shore up established vested interests.

Looking first at the Council of Trent. This was one of a series of crisis meetings convened by the Catholic Church to try and deal with the pesky Protestant Reformation which was threatening its authority in large parts of Europe. An aspect of this that was especially irksome was the new-fangled technology of printing, which had allowed Martin Luther et al, as well as some other awkward geeks such as Galileo, to spread their ideas far more extensively that would have been possible in the good-old days of the Inquisition. In fact one of the most significant aspects behind the success of the Protestant Reformation was its adoption of this new communications technology and a recognition of its power to disrupt established institutionalised interests (i.e. the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church).

The Roman Catholic Church could not deny or seek to eradicate this new technology, but it could try to appropriate its power and control its output – hence the Index of Banned Books. This Index was an attempt to define and promote only content that supported institutionalised political vested interests (the Roman Catholic Church). YouTube Red, on the other hand, is an attempt to define and promote only content that supports institutionalised commercial vested interests (Google and the advertising industry). Continue reading

Twitter’s failure: a failure of management or expectation?

It has just been announced (in a Tweet of course) that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has stepped down, under pressure from investors, because of a perceived failure to either grow the user base or revenue sufficiently.

The real issue here is what is this a failure of.  Is it a failure of management to grow users and (advertising) revenues, or it is it a failure of expectation on the part of investors?  I tend to see it as the later.

Twitter has the same problem that Facebook has in that the ‘clever’ chaps on Wall Street who had to stick a number on it when it started to prospect for investment used the wrong model.  Continue reading

Podcasting: what goes around comes around

I am intrigued at the extent to which podcasts are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity because it was podcasts that first got me interested in social media all those years ago.  In the time before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, podcasts were the first vaguely commercial looking manifestation of the thing we now call social media.  Before podcasts there were only blogs – which at the time were simply (and incorrectly) seen as online personal diaries and personal diaries are not serious or sensible things.  Podcasts, however, looked a lot like radio shows – and radio shows are (sometimes) serious and sensible things.  The claim behind podcasts was that now everyone could make a radio show – which seemed highly intriguing, and potentially highly disruptive (at least to radio shows).

But two things happened which stopped podcasts delivering on their potential.  First was the assumption that now everyone could produce a radio show – because it very soon became apparent that the people who had always produced radio shows could do a much better job of it than couples in their kitchens.  This was a classic confusion of information and distribution.  A radio show is basically a form of distribution not a form of content.  The means (and expense) of radio distribution dictate and constrain what the content of a radio show can be – as with all forms of traditional media.  What the social media revolution has done is liberate information from restrictive means of distribution.  Content doesn’t have to conform to the rules of mass media.  Radio (form of distribution) becomes audio (form of content/information).

Audio producers (podcasters) therefore didn’t need to constrain themselves with the distribution restrictions associated with being radio producres – but no-one really realised this.  Instead everyone tried to replicate (and unsuccessfuly compete with) ‘old-fashioned’ radio shows.  Continue reading

Content marketing: reaching for the stars (but reach is yesterday’s game)

16245948997364302024I am content marketing’s biggest fan.  I am content marketing’s biggest sceptic.

As a fan …

In May 2011 I gave a presentation to finance directors from major communications agency groups for the EACA.  It was about how agencies could survive in the world of social media.  I concluded the presentation with six (slightly tongue in cheek) recommendations, one of which was “hire a bunch of journalists and get them to do outsourced content creation and editorial management”.*

Before that, my mantra was (and remains) that conversation, content and community are the three platforms of any social media strategy.

Looking back at my presentations from seven years ago I see I was encouraging brands to drive a network of content threads into their relevant digital space with the exhortation to “get it a link, get it out there, get it working for you”.

One would therefore have thought that on reading this cover story about the rise of content marketing from the Columbia Journalism Review, I would therefore feel vindicated.  (Incidentally, I was sent this piece by Stan Magniant, fellow social media traveller from way back, who now heads up Coca Cola’s digital and content operation for Northern Europe).  But I don’t feel vindicated, I feel disappointed. This isn’t the sort of content I was talking about.

But as a sceptic…

First there is the whole issue of ‘independent’ journalism being replaced by ‘sponsored’ journalism.  But I am not too worried about this because journalism was always sponsored and all that is happening is that the sponsor is becoming more apparent.

My main issue is with the concept (and value) of reaching consumers in comparison with the value of being reached by consumers.

The justification, and measurement, for most of these mega brand content operations is primarily reach.  As the CJR article highlights, some of the content that brands are producing is matching (sometimes exceeding) the reach achieved by traditional media channels.  But there are two issues here.  One is consistency.  A traditional media channel, generally speaking, guaranties a particular level of reach, whereas brand content is much more hit and miss.  But the bigger issue is that reaching someone is the lesser part of the game.  What really matters is what happens when you reach someone (or what happens when they reach you).

In ‘the old days’ we tended not to think about this too much because we knew we were putting messages in the channel that had been specifically designed to trigger a valuable response (i.e. advertising).  If we were reaching people, we were therefore creating value: reach was therefore a proxy for value creation.  Or alternatively, our PR messages had the benefit of carrying with them third-party endorsement conferred on them by the channels which adopted them.  But brand channels don’t carry this endorsement and their availability means brands can easily fill them up with huge amounts of stuff, in the quest to ratchet-up the reach score.  When it is easy and cheap to pour vast amounts of content into a space, it is not difficult to accumulate high aggregated levels of reach.  But should that not indicate to us that reach is becoming a devalued currency?  Reach is a function of distribution, and the social media revolution is all about the separation of information (content) from distribution.  Being a channel, being the distributor, creating reach, carries less and less value (as the traditional media is discovering).   Reach, in and of itself, is yesterday’s game.

Chasing reach is simply a new variant of the (now belatedly discredited) exercise of manufacturing Facebook likes and Twitter followers.  You may have reached a whole lot of people, but so what?  What does this actually mean for what these people think about your brand and how does this translate into improved sales or reputation scores?  How much credit is the brand actually getting for being seen as the supplier of this content?  Is supplying this sort of content what your consumers are saying they want you to do?

I keep coming back to the recent Edelman Brandshare report, which is a crystal clear manifesto for brands, presented to them by consumers.  There is no ambiguity here about what it is consumers want from brands.  In terms of content, they want answers to their questions.  And they also want brands to demonstrate that they stand for something in addition to the generation of profit.

It seems to me that brands are at a crossroads.  They can decide to jump on the content bandwagon and pour huge amounts of stuff into the ever-expanding content universe, collecting their ‘reach points’ as they go in the belief that they can redeem these for something worth having.  Or they can decide to give consumers what consumers are telling them they want – which is a content strategy which matches brand answers to consumers’ questions in real-time.  And a marketing strategy that is designed to convince consumers that they are a brand worth reaching.


* The other five were: fire all creatives over 30 and put a £45k salary cap on the creative department, fire all your planners and hire social data analysts (and sell social data analysis as a product), sell your independently branded digital and media businesses (while you can still get a premium price) but pull the function in-house so it becomes a facilitation function not a client facing specialism, buy a change management / innovation agency and get it to develop a brand socialisation product, recruit some “Baby Bells” (i.e. people like Tim (Lord) Bell who can act as CEO counsellors).  So, a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I would still stand by them.