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Inherent Risks Of Social Media Advertising – And How To Mitigate Them

Published October 28, 2017 by vishalvkale

I was enjoying my morning read of the Business Standard, when my eye fell upon a story – Facebook and Google helpedanti-Refugee campaign in Swing States, Business Standard, Friday 20thOctober. I  noticed this story, and marked it for later contemplation. The recent saga over Twitter usage by  Indian Politicians brought my mind back to this story – and its many implications. While the ethical & moral implications are also present – but most vital is the implication of this, and similar happenings we may or may not be aware of, for us the people as well as for democracy.
Image Credit – Google Search

It is one thing for a politician to openly come on Social Media – quite a few have done it quite successfully; they lay their views, attitudes, national plans, ideals, problems etc – like one Indian Politician. Others use Facebook, and especially  Twitter in their own names to further their own views etc. There is nothing wrong with that – in fact, that is actually welcome, as it helps a large number of people become aware of what that person stands for, as well as have a judgement of his or her potential. Used that way it is ethical, transparent, open and disseminates information.
TARGETED USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA BY INTERESTS
However, I would request that you open the link above and read it; the usage of – maybe even targeted usage of – the Social Media platform as described in the article, goes way beyond what has been described above, and indeed way beyond the scourge of fake news that is now a common phenomenon that we are seeing on Social Media nowadays.  “In the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign, voters in swing states including Nevada and North Carolina saw ads appear in their Facebook feeds and on Google websites touting a pair of controversial faux-tourism videos, showing France and Germany overrun by Sharia law.
This is quite frankly, extremely disturbing, worrisome and should cause unease and disquiet in most minds. The article goes further, showing emloyees roles as well as targeted advertising : “Unlike Russian efforts to secretly influence the 2016 election via social media, this American-led campaign was aided by direct collaboration with employees of Facebook and Google. They helped target the ads to more efficiently reach the intended audiences, according to internal reports from the ad agency that ran the campaign, as well as five people involved with the efforts.
FACTOR 1 : OUR ENTIRE LIVES ARE ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INTERNET
In the modern world, those of us connected on Social Media have our entire lives on these platforms; it is easy to collate and study patterns for the SM companies – with a larger customer base meaning more defined patterns. It allows advertisers to target people specifically as per your individual tastes. Just think – you click on a site, and ads related to that site pop-up in your feed; used this way, it is legal, ethical as well as a powerful advertising tool, which can and does lead to win-win situations for the customers as well as the companies alike. But recall that we have our opinions, likes and dislikes etc all openly stated; it is easy to spot patterns and create interest groups on a large database.
FACTOR 2 : IMPACT OF AV MESSAGES & MODERN PREFERENCES OF PEOPLE
Secondly, the impact of Audio-Visual messages is known to be strong in both psychology as well as advertising. Further, add to that the increasingly short attention span of the audience combined with the sad phenomenon of lesser personal time / greater work stress, as well as the propensity to prefer easier to assimilate modes of information gathering {AV}, and short tit bits. These two sub-factors combine to create a situation that enables a mind to easily assimilate and accept messages that meet these criteria stated above.
DRAWING INFERENCES FROM THE TWO FACTORS
The two major factors above create a situation wherein a targeted message can be accepted with readiness and ease at least by one segment of the population. The abilities and concepts described in the first factor create a set of people with vested interests that enable the creation of ability and skill sets that can be put to use to reach the set of consumers identified for targeted messaging. In other words, to put it crudely, a set of people willing to accept, and a set of providers willing to use this acceptability of the people to get across a targeted message comes together to create confusion.
Let me explain – on one side, you have a set a data, voluminous, about people – their likes, dislikes, views, readership, viewership, opinions. We can use this to create sub-groups according to various tastes, opinions and what-have-you. This is the company-side skill. On the other side, you have a set of people with easy acceptance of AV or short messages, short content as told in the second factor. The companies can spot patterns among the people, can group them together. Thus it is becomes easy to make tailormade messages that can influence people with specific proclivities and propel their choices towards a targeted objective.
It is feasible to create patterns, extrapolate and draw inferences from Social Media activities. If one person has a habit of regularly visiting Food sites, specific to Chololates, Desserts, Cakes – one can draw the inference that this person may have a preference for sweets. Similarly, if a person regularly likes, tweets, gives opinion on one side of any view in the political or social spectrum, you can extrapolate that he believes in one POV. In large enough data – hundreds of thousands of respondents – this will enable the identification of a set of people predisdisposed towards a thought process. This may not hold true for all instances –  but in a large enough data sets of people, patterns will emerge that generally hold true; and remember, in Social Media we are dealing with live data sets, not snapshots of time.
As can be seen above – a targeted message {Anti-Refuge} was delivered through social media. And again, as we can read, there was direct collaboration of employees. Result was a strong message was delivered at a targeted audience, again as stated in the article.  And that is why the article above is so disturbing. While it is possible for this to happen even without the collusion of employees of SM companies, it becomes infinitely easier with their help; also, the data is also relatively error-free. Add to this the issue of Subliminal Advertising – of which currently there is no provable evidence in the public domain, and neither is it a legislated area.
COMING TO INDIA…
Can this happen in India? Has this happened in India? We do not know; I hope not. But we do know that now the political parties are using Social Media in myriad ways, as has been extensively reported. We also know of at least one book on trolling or usage of SM by one party. We have seen another getting smarter in its SM presence. This they should do – SM is an efficient way to reach audiences – be it politics or be it consumer goods. No issues with that whatsoever.
The problem is if this newfound capability is used to get across a targeted message – especially one of the fringe variety, towards a targeted audience. The biggest question is – where do we draw the line? And who is to judge what is the line specifically? If we have the capability to segment audiences as per tastes, I for one see no reason why that should not be used for mutual benefit. But – as I asked in my previous article as well – how far is too far?
It is we ourselves that are giving these parties and these companies this ability, by placing all our choices openly. This cannot be avoided in increasingly connected world – just not posting on SM is not the long term solution; other proxies can easily be developed, as so much is online in the modern world, that with time, money and capability drawing inferences from data sets is dead easy. This is the evil side, the negative side of the technology that drives our civilization. It really boils down to data security, and a question of simple regulation and ethics.
A QUESTION OF RULES & REGULATIONS
The Social Media companies need to have a strong set of internal rules &  regulations governing content that is accepted by their advertising departments; one that is specially rigorous for political parties or for messages that can be construed to have a political content, or indeed for social content. There has to be a differentiator clearly placed between product-service advertising, and cause advertising. This is doable and is frankly easy to do and operate. It requires an iron will within companies. It also requires strict regulation and a code of ethics so that pressure tactics are not used to pressurize companies.
CONCLUSION

Both the above are doable; we in corporate India need to wake up and smell the coffee. We need to open our eyes, and see the immense potential for good that technology holds as well as the immense potential for influence it holds – and the potential for damage. On a personal side, we customers need to be made more aware of privacy issues, data security and issues arising out of the above. It is not feasible to expect 500million people to stop posting opinions etc on SM; that is not going to happen.  Above all we need to understand the immense creative as well as disruptive power social media holds, its potential, as well as the need for regulation. This is a space that is not self-regulating. We need to wake up, and ensure that some borders are set in place. The US example should not be repeated… 

The Facebook & Fake News Issues

Published April 15, 2017 by vishalvkale

The title of this article just about says it all… The Facebook Issue. This article is coming after a long self-examination and Facebook feed examination, with the explicit purpose of putting Facebook and its contemporary utility in Social Media with relevance to me as an individual. This deep introspective examination has lead to startling revelations to myself, which is what I am attempting place here, with an intent to support my decision to move my Social Media content away from Facebook due to issues arising out of the feed and the interaction that happens on it.
MY HISTORY WITH FACEBOOK
But first, the background. I came onto Facebook as a means to get in daily touch with family, find old friends, and keep connected with them. It then grew into a method of chronicling important events in my life through Photographs & Posts, that I could visit later. Both the above have given excellent results, and shall continue as important aspects of my digital profile with added security features, like sharing in Secret Groups, and strong personal security options.
Facebook then developed into a News Feed, as I liked the home-pages of all the publications I follow; it became an easy way for me to access the news as it happens. This has given superb results as well as  many, many discoveries and learnings through pointed articles. Not only that, it has also lead to my discovering other great Media Vehicles for topics of my interests. This is now becoming a major issue, and the most significant reason for my hunt for other options.
TIME PASSES, OLD TURNS TO NEW
However, there has been a significant change in past few months, maybe an year or two, which has increasingly caused me to wonder how to manage my feed. The problem was it wasn’t as simple as cutting a few people – whose views I may not agree with, but with whom I am close. In other words, I place a greater value on my relationship with them, than disagree with their views. One doesn’t stop interacting just because you don’t agree; true relations thrive despite differences.
The other, bigger problem was the contamination of my feed with POVs which are rather disturbing, things which  are too close to my Value-Belief Matrix for me to ignore. Being mature, one can ignore once, twice, thrice… but there comes a time when your defences drop, and you end up responding to the views, which is not the way forward. However, this is again related to POVs of my circle, one which can be managed by the simple measure of disengaging, like I have done on Politics totally. This has helped preserve some relationships – indeed deepen them.
By far the biggest issue is the scepter of Fake News, which is rampant, and appears regularly on my News Feed. The reason is that Facebook is by far the most popular Social Media Vehicle. This is compounded by the belief systems of my circle, some of whom tend to believe in these fake news articles. What is more disturbing is that even I have fallen to these articles and, on occasion, believed in them – despite my rather excellent repertoire of reading on a wide variety of subjects as documented on my blog quite faithfully over the past 5 years and more. This complex of Fake News + Belief Systems amplifies this Fake News, making it appear all over my News Feed.

While I can disengage with my circle; that is easy to do – it is not so easy to disengage with these articles which keep popping up with disturbing regularity. That increases the risk of I myself falling prey to them exponentially, as quite a few people in my circle also read and circulate them. And that is what is not acceptable to me as a person. My primary usage of Facebook was as a News Feed and as a means to keep in touch with family. Now, there are options available that can fill some of my needs…

THE OPTIONS
Whatsapp has filled a major gap; now it is easier than ever to remain in daily touch far more effectively. That apart, one can access Facebook once every day just to see what is happening with Friends and Family, achieved by cutting off all Social Media Engagements & Likes, which will purify my feed instantaneously. Sure, FF feeds will still appear, but, over time as my Facebook time falls, the quality of my feed will improve automatically, leaving all of us the happier in the bargain.
I cant disengage with Facebook totally; that would be stupid. I am just stating a smarter more strategic usage of the same. My blog still gets good readership from Facebook just to take another exampe, meaning it is valuable resource. All I am saying or rather advocating is the full usage of the other emergent technologies that are coming – like RSS Feeds, Email Subscriptions, Paid Subscriptions to content – and most of all Twitter. A judicious combination of these will fill the gap, give me a relatively clean and pure feed of news of my choice, keep me engaged socially as well.

Reason is that these vehicles are relatively uncontaminated as of now, especially Twitter, which is virgin pure almost. There is a near-total absence of disturbing nonsense as of now on Twitter, as it is not as populated and popular as Facebook. Likewise, RSS Feeds and Email Subscriptions, Paid content can be managed easily by regular monitoring. This will ensure the purity of my news feed, free from Fake News and disturbing content which is increasing by leaps and bounds on Facebook. And if Facebook’s attempt to clean up Fake News works, then maybe, some day, I can start re-engaging in the old fashion…