Dear Facebook users, please stop blaming society’s ills on a social media platform. Doing so is akin to blaming problems in the early 1900s on the literal “soap boxes” politicians stood on to speak.
Another week and yet another outrage-inducing event surrounding one of the platforms we live our digitally-mediated lives on, “Facebook Enabled Advertisers to Reach ‘Jew Haters’” trumpets ProPublica.
“Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally?” is hopefully a question very few people would answer yes to, but ProPublica flippantly ask this in their introduction – immediately framing the issue as one of ‘exploitive advertisers x new media platforms = downfall of civilisation’.
It was only a couple of day’s later that this inspired the investigative journalists / listicle crafters at Buzzfeed to see what outrageous searches they could target via Google Adwords, “Google Allowed Advertisers To Target People Searching Racist Phrases” was the result.
Actually, I’m surprised they didn’t present their findings as a Listicle itself, “top 10 racist ads you’d be surprised your friends click on”… but instead they decided to go against type and provide detailed instructions for creating bigoted ads of your own, a handy-how-to as it were. For the sake of not making it easier for racists-to-find-racists in the future, they’ll hopefully stick closer to their heartland with their next exposé.
What have these two incidents taught us? That Facebook and Google tacitly support antisemitism? No, that’s ridiculously reductive and only good for making headlines more clickable.
That AI is fallible and needs solid human supervision? Sure, but that’s table-stakes for those technologists who need to know.
That 2,300 people list their area of study on Facebook as “jew hater”. No?!
Yes – 2,300 people list their area of study as “jew hater”. (That was how Facebook’s automated categoriser turned it into a targetable audience underneath “areas of study” for college students.)
These 2,300 put this in their Facebook profile… to be seen by hundreds of thousands of others.
2,300 people in our society think that is an acceptable thought, let alone one they should broadcast?
What if, instead of “Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally?” ProPublica had started their article with, “Want to target the far right with messages to reduce neo-Nazi tendencies?”.
What if, instead of suggesting an algorithm tweak could solve society’s ills – they’d suggested we all take a look at ourselves and wonder what we might be doing to tacitly endorse these beliefs in our everyday lives, as much as Facebook’s technologies are?
It’s an outlier in the advertising world, where targeting those with a “high propensity to purchase” and “adjacent audiences” is the norm, but I spent a number of years targeting people with anti-social behaviours. Social marketing – not the act of advertising through social media channels, but promoting positive behavioural change, typically for governmental bodies. Anti-smoking, Get Active, Road Safety et al – the last was my remit.
It’s one of the greatest challenges as a Ad Planner – rather than putting your message in front of people who are inclined to believe you or already behave as you’d like (“hey crisp lover, here’s a new flavour!”) you turn 180 degrees and try to convince people to go against their natural inclinations or desires, e.g. “hey care-free bullet-proof young person who loves the visceral thrill or driving fast – slow that car down”.
My wife (at the time just “my media planner”) and I would spend time with our colleagues working out how to identify, and communicate with, people with a propensity to misbehave on the road. It isn’t easy. Finding them means creating proxies for ignorant beliefs (substitute “jew hater” for the less repugnant but still regrettable “drives fast, consequences be damned”).
What you come to realise, through research and experience in this field, is that you need to get all of society talking about anti-social activities – not just speak to the perpetrators. What is seen to be “socially acceptable” has enormous effect on how people in our culture think and act. This can be negative…and positive.
Much has been discussed, especially since Trump’s “surprise” win (a surprise only to pollsters whose faith in their own methodologies trumped reality, and those liberals who didn’t look beyond their friendship circles) about “the filter bubble”.
The rhetoric around this has been markedly asymmetrical – on one side it was, “liberals didn’t realise not everyone thought as they did” and on the other, “ignorant conservatives were consistently taken in by fake news”. (The irony is that the success of many fake-news stories was created by outraged liberals sharing – further pushing them up the algorithmic ranking and out to those more gullible who would be taken in by them as truth.)
In no way do I endorse these platforms in allowing this targeting, or indeed allowing people to express such views. But suppressing their views and ability to target them does not solve these problems. It sweeps them under the carpet.
For those who retweeted these ad targeting stories with outrage and feel it is “job done” when platforms stop allowing questionable groups to be targeted – congratulate yourself for stopping those who sell KKK t-shirts, or indeed Donald trump hats, from making a few bucks off racists. But don’t fool yourselves into thinking society has, in any way, changed for the better.
We need more encounters between bigots and those with such biases, more visibility of what is and isn’t acceptable. But maybe, in a hyper-personalised online world – it is too late for this. The filter-bubble is real and really profitable for platforms and publishers alike.
So before we resort to denouncing these platforms and denying personal culpability entirely, let’s try something new, but old – talking to, not about, people we disagree with.
The real problem is not that you might encounter these racists and their abhorrent opinions online. It’s that you do encounter them offline everyday – probably don’t realise it, and certainly do little about it.
No, they may not be brave/stupid to express these things in person the way they do online. But they’re regular members of (our) society. Not, for the most, swastika wearing loners. And its these times when we encounter them offline, where no filter bubbles exist – where demo & psychographic rich arenas like workplaces and sport-clubs force un-like-minded people together – that we have the opportunity to have encounters that change hearts and minds.
Looking up from your phone and engaging with those around you is essential in times like these. Disappearing off to social media, which has been finally sanitised to a facade-of-civility by your last outraged tweet, is far-from the way to make a better world for all.