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Marketing’s Role in Surveillance Economics

In the dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell, the characters are subjected to omnipresent surveillance and data harvesting. The government — the recipient of this data — leverages the findings to influence and accomplish their goal of total social compliance.

And while the year 1984 didn’t herald the end of individual freedoms as Orwell portrayed, the act of influencing actions through propaganda based on historical data isn’t new. Enter the surveillance economy.

Surveillance capitalism was invented by Google when they realized that the “data exhaust” they created through their search engine and other products could be harvested and resold, creating an incredible competitive advantage. Predictable patterns in this firehose of data began to emerge. What began as simple user-behavior predictability has infiltrated every buying decision you make, as AI continues to build a more complex and accurate digital crystal ball, fueled by the simple clicks and actions we make daily. 

Google’s AdWords products are a simple example of data exhaust mined into predictable user-behavior data. You type in a keyword search and Google now finishes your queries for you with more accuracy than a spouse. But no one leverages data exhaust better than Facebook Business

The battered data behemoth is not the innocent utopian digital playground it aspires to be. Facebook is a company, and companies are beholden to their shareholders, customers, and employees. As a public company, Facebook is ultimately responsible for providing providence in the form of profits to its investors — and digital exhaust never looked so good. According to Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “Facebook doesn’t want to harm you, but it gladly extracts data from pain.” And they have profited greatly from our pain; they’ve even gone as far as influencing elections.

But as marketers and entrepreneurs, are we not in the business of solving problems and alleviating pain for profit? In capitalism, the mantra is pain equals profits. Cold? Yes, but this idea predates democracy. This concept is part of our fabric as humans, stemming from the Latin word profectus — to advance and progress. First recorded in the 12th century, to profit is to be human, and has likely been around as long as we have. 

While leadership at Facebook aspires to “fix” the negative consequences of their wildly successful platform, there have been at least 300 significant quantifiable studies on the relationship between social media and mental health since 2013. The American Journal of Epidemiology concluded, “Facebook use does not promote well-being.” A more damning article titled A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization — a collaboration between Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer and academic researchers — detailed how Facebook planted voting-related cues in the news feeds of 61-million users. It was concluded that the effort successfully triggered “social contagion” influencing real-world behavior — with more than 340,000 real votes casted as a result.

Imagine the results if those cues were planted to influence one candidate over another. One doesn’t need much imagination to see that the influence threat is very real if the power to wield that data at scale falls into unethical hands.

Facebook’s stock closed at $171.26 per common share as of the writing of this position paper, with a peak market capitalization of over $104 billion so far in its short history to date. That profit is derived solely from the intimate tracking of every click, finger-pause, like, and emoji. That information is then correlated, analyzed, and filed in Facebook’s growing AI, which is packaged and re-sold to anyone who wishes to secure a paid placement on their platform to a segmented audience. Full disclosure — we regularly recommend this practice to clients.

But despite best intentions and privacy concerns, we all participate in this video-recorded house of mirrors — and willingly.

The stunning success of this business model is influencing every segment of our economy. Traditional industries are leveraging their own data to create predictive models for buyer behavior and mitigate risk. A simple leveraged model allows for the basic resale of customer behavioral data harvested via website, app, or other digital platform. More complex companies are employing data scientists (or outsourcing the work) to mine for their own digital gold rush. The outcome for any business is predictable results and mitigated risks.

What if your car insurer or mortgage company could accurately predict your future driving habits or payment history? What happens when this data is applied to your next job application or when you compare health insurance plans? When do we cross the line from marketing and risk-assessment to discrimination?

As members of this business community, we find ourselves in increasingly difficult ethical situations. One must ask, “Have our actions inadvertently stepped beyond advertising? Are we now curating the lives of our customers?” Intimately knowing more about the customer than they know about themselves and perfectly positioning curated content to influence their decisions is more Orwellian than not.

While transparency in the field is increasing with the labeling of paid placements, there is a long way to go. As we leverage complex data sets increasingly simplified for the masses, this power is coming into the hands of even the most inexperienced. Judging the ethics of the users of your own customer data is a very real HR issue to consider.

As professionals, we owe the future of the marketing industry — and business in general — the careful consideration of the contract we have with customers and the role we play as stewards of their data and privacy. Overstepping that trust has dire consequences, like the retraction of the data exhaust we now rely on for accurate forecasting, and compromised R&D and customer-service experiences. Imagine your business as a billion-dollar spaceship without a navigational system — that future is bleak indeed without the data we have come to rely upon. Defense of this natural resource is the lifeblood of not just the internet, but our very brands and the future of our industries.

 KPI Cheat Sheet

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