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Big Data – a breach of trust

21st March 2018

The scandal that has been unearthed this week by Channel 4 in the UK engulfing both Facebook and data company Cambridge Analytica has come as a shock to many. And there can be no doubt that the depths of depravity that the undercover reporters caught the Cambridge Analytica senior team boasting about in their operations around the world are indeed shocking.  However, should we really be surprised to learn that companies of this nature are willing to go to such lengths?

In 2012 I was lucky enough to spend a month volunteering on the Barrack Obama re-election campaign. While there it was clear what the main focus was – get data, and lots of it. Under the campaign guidance of David Axelrod and Jim Messina in 2008, the Obama campaign was seen to revolutionise the way in which political campaigning was undertaken. It was all about big data. While registering voters there was a great emphasis placed on getting them to join a targeted sharing tool on Facebook.

Over a million Obama supporters signed up for the Facebook app during the campaign, an app which gave the campaign permission to look through their friends list, giving them a huge pool of rich data to mine.

We worked with the theory that potential swing voters were more likely to be persuaded by their friends than by generic political advertising, with the campaign promoting what they termed “friend-to-friend” communication. In swing states this was widely seen as very successful, although it’s difficult to know exactly what persuades voters.

It should be made absolutely clear that all of this data mining from Facebook in 2012 was done entirely with voters’ permission. In fact the purpose of the app was talked about at length with prospective voters, so there bears no comparison with this week’s scandal where data was taken from Facebook seemingly without people’s consent.

However, what is true is that both in 2008 and 2012 big data was one of the driving forces behind Barrack Obama winning and then returning to the White House. So fast forward six years, is it really a surprise that unscrupulous companies such as Cambridge Analyitca are taking these proven communications tactics and using them in an utterly nefarious way?

I hope that what we have seen this week will bring an end to many of the awful practices uncovered. Clearly, as someone who lives in Kenya, I share the wider curiosity about what all this might mean for our recent - highly unusual - elections.  The alleged involvement of Cambridge Analytica’s in Kenya may now have new weight, given the recent revelations in the US and UK contexts.

Having said that, these revelations should not detract from the value that communications attached to big data can bring. As communications professionals, big data can provide us with real insight into our target audience that allows us to better understand what they really think, which in turn allows us to tailor our messages accordingly and answer the questions they want answering.

Take for example, one of the most traditional outputs of public relations professionals - a simple press release. A press release can contain three or maybe four key messages, and done properly these key messages will talk to a good segment of your target audience.  But the reality is, no matter how well they are done, it is somewhat of a scatter gun approach. What if you could write a press release tailored for each individual you are targeting? That is the tantalising goal that big data can help us get closer to. Indeed, will big data make the humble press release superfluous in years to come as we use more targeted communications methods?  I think it is entirely possible.

Data companies like Cambridge Analytica have probably been treading a thin line between legal and illegal, moral and immoral for a long time. Whether legal or not, it is unacceptable to use people’s information for purposes that they are not aware of. This latest scandal might just bring us closer to such companies being more transparent with the use of data.

Whatever the fall out of this debacle, it is important to remember that big data does not have to lead to cloak and dagger meetings, bribes and entrapment. Done in the right, ethical way, it is a tool vital for communications in the 21st century.

Zack King

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