Inertia, ethics, and breaches of trust

Data, data everywhere, but ethics in short supply.

The latest episode of the Small Data Forum podcast follows the classic narrative arc of a three-act story. Beginning, middle, and end. The set-up, the confrontation, and the resolution. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

And although our wide-ranging discussion did run the risk of leaving all three co-hosts in the depths of despair, Neville Hobson, Thomas Stoeckle, and I end up hoping that the asteroid NASA predicts is hurtling towards earth can be diverted from its nihilistic path.

We kick off considering the implications of Google recently losing a landmark “right to be forgotten” case in the UK courts. For me, the case says more about national (courts) and supranational (the EU) organisations looking to flex – and being seen to flex – their regulatory and legislative muscles in the face of the increasing hegemony of FAANG. Facebook Apple Amazon Netflix and Google.

This takes us naturally to consider yet another month of woes for Facebook. Since we last podded, Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress and the Senate and explained – as patiently as he could to Congressmen and Senators often more than twice his age – how the publisher-platform makes its money; “Senator, we sell ads!”

The company is preparing to be hauled over the coals at the House of Commons Select Committee run by the Department of Culture, Media, and (also) Sport in London. Apparently ham-fistedly, it has on-shored its data warehouse of European users from Ireland to the U.S.A. “to get around GDPR”. And Money Saving Expert (and millionaire), consumer champion Martin Lewis is suing Facebook for defamation after his image appeared in bogus financial ads. Irony of irony, those ads were programmatically served alongside articles reporting Lewis’ legal action.

As recently as last August, people were talking about the prospect of President Zuckerberg by 2020. That prospect seems remote today.

And yet, and yet …. despite perhaps the worst run of bad news in recent corporate history, ad revenue and profitability at Facebook continue to grow. Big brands aren’t weaning themselves off their Facebook addiction, whatever big beasts including P&G’s Marc Pritchard and Unilever’s Keith Weed might say.

And not just Facebook. The head of Government communications in the UK – the very visible, conference favourite and former flatmate of George Osbourne, Alex Aiken – recently admitted that taking all departments off YouTube in the wake of the ad misplacement scandal stoked by The Times last year for three months had absolutely no impact on campaign KPIs. No fewer people recycling. No less applications for the army. And yet – despite that conclusive evidence – the UK Government is back spending with Alphabet’s video sharing site.

Marketing’s sweariest MBA professor, Mark Ritson, who moonlights as a columnist for Marketing Week, pointed the finger squarely at CMOs who have remained silent in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal … precisely because the psychographic targeting and use of 1st, 2nd, but particularly 3rd-party data has been the stock-in-trade of their digital advertising for years. More evidence of inertia from business to shift out of their shiny new ways of reaching consumers through FAANG.

But Facebook isn’t the only villain in this story. As we concluded in the previous episode  of the podcast, “If it’s free, you are the product”. The CA debacle has made this truism widely discussed for perhaps the first time in the mainstream media and among users. Many have been publicly outraged, and #DeleteFacebook campaigns have circled the globe, including on Facebook and led by some who’ve made billions from Facebook, most notably the cofounder of WhatsApp, Brian Acton.

As with advertisers, so with users. The numbers leaving the platform has been little more than a trickle. Some have tightened security settings – and many have denied Facebook the opportunity to apply facial recognition algorithms to recognise them where they’re untagged as part of a pre-GDPR update. But the threat of losing the chance of being poked by your first love is proving too much of an anchor to users. Inertia rules, despite the very clear appeals to reason.

Perhaps we’re living in the digital equivalent of when Sir Richard Doll first established a conclusive link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s, but smoking rates stayed stubbornly high. Indeed, the impact of likes and favourites, retweets and shares is mediated through the very same reward circuitry in the brain as each puff of a cigarette, so perhaps this inertia to shake our digital addiction isn’t surprising. This film says more.

Our conversation broadens from Facebook’s woes – accompanied by brands’ continued support for the tarnished behemoth – to bigger issues.

To discussions of who benefits from the data-driven digital revolution (FAANG rather than citizens).

To an exploration of the murky world of the military-digital industrial complex, exposed in a recent article from Tamsin Shaw in the New York Review of Books.

And to the naivety of the UK Institute of Practitioners of Advertising, in their declared goal of outlawing micro-targeting of voters with political messages in the wake of the CA cock-up.

I contend – as we hurtle towards despair – that ‘twas ever thus, and that it is a mistake to even consider the behaviour of corporations and governments in terms of individual morality. Yes, there are corporations – from Unilever to Kimberley Clark, Harley Davidson to Patagonia – that attempt to “do well by doing good”, to bake triple bottom-line sustainability into how they do business.

But the primary – legal – duty of the officers and board of (particularly) listed or quoted businesses is to maximise return to shareholders, and that can – will – and does bring ethical challenges to the heart of corporate life. The profit motive (almost) always trumps purpose.

More than once, as we come towards the end of our time – on this podcast, not on this planet – Thomas muses on whether our downloaded homunculi will still be discussing these same topics 50 years from now, on episode 618 of the Small Data Forum. And that – for me at least – was the climax or second act turning point of the narrative arc of this episode.

Perhaps, just perhaps, things can feel desperate because – for the first time – many more people (and potentially everyone) has a clear line of sight into what is actually happening. It’s confused, it’s nested and vested, it’s murky and dirty, and ordinary individual citizens don’t seem to have any heft or influence over the corporate-military-industrial complex. But you can’t do anything about anything unless you have line of sight. Hence my grain of optimism.

Neville, too, sees reasons to be cheerful, though rather more prosaically around the preparedness of big business for GDPR. While there are clear Millennium Bug parallels – including the legion consultants who’ve grown fat giving advice to confused corporates – he asserts that the world will most certainly not fall off its axis on 25 May, nor will it be shown to be flat. Neville is encouraged by the flurry of activity evident around compliance, and his optimism surrounds the fact that many companies will be “substantially compliant” by the deadline.

As ever, time is the enemy of we three podcasters. We don’t get to the ethics, legal, and little-big data implications of DNA. As a means of data storage and as permanent record of every citizen’s genetic inheritance, environmental reality, and likely cause and time of death and sickness. Insurance companies must be rubbing their hands with glee.

But more of that next time in episode 19, due to prepared and served up just in time for GDPR Day.

Listen to episode 18:

Sam Knowles is the Founder & MD of Insight Agents, a corporate and brand storytelling consultancy. His book Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data was published by Routledge in April 2018. More at

(Photo at top by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash)

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