Seduced by the illusion of initial success of digital marketing, agencies haven’t even realized they became mere sales agents and a booth for several global IT companies that have overtaken their business in the meantime

Drugi jezik na kojem je dostupan ovaj članak: Bosnian

By: Branimir Brkljač

Chelsea Elizabeth Manning is the world’s most (in)famous whistleblower. This 30-year-old transgender person, as former US intelligence analyst, forwarded 700,000 secret documents to Julian Assange, proving massive and systematic human rights violations during the U.S. operations in Iraq, which lead to the WikiLeaks affair. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She spent seven years in prison, nine months of which in a 24-hour supervised solitary cell where she wasn’t allowed to sit during the day, so she spent time mostly dancing in her cell. She was released in 2017 when Barack Obama pardoned her, which was one of his last decisions as US President. Today, Chelsea is an activist for LGBTQ+ rights and reform of the US prison system.

Her life story is already a reason enough to make you want to hear her story first hand. I will not tell her story here. Her story is just the intro for my topic today – or rather one sentence she said on 24 May at Solotech Arena in Montreal: “The same algorithm used in Iraq was also used to target potential buyers (in the U.S.)!”

It would’ve been the same if she had said “The same algorithm used to target potential buyers was also used in Iraq!” And that’s the topic today. When IT tech entered our daily life, the marketing industry gained a new discipline – digital marketing. Digital marketing was initially just another channel of communication with the customer. As our lives rapidly digitized, so traditional media channels digitized as well, and today it is pointless to talk about digital marketing as a separate segment. Everything is digital marketing.

The marketing agencies adapted to this. They boast with high click-through rates (CTR), they brag how they target customers outside the primary target group through well-tailored banners, thus increasing reach, they explain systems for increasing number of followers and generating guaranteed likes on social networks, they teach clients the forms they need to know when they want to come up with a clickbait headline for a PR text, and all the other cool & sexy things that just go to show how well they adapted to the new age.

Seduced by this illusion of initial success of digital marketing, agencies haven’t even realized they became mere sales agents and a booth for several global IT companies that have overtaken their business in the meantime.

Algorithms are already far more powerful weapon than TV commercials, billboards or print ads. And every day they become more perfect, more precise, and we become less and less aware why we choose a certain product over the others. The power of these new “weapons of mass persuasion” is that the big brother first profiles us based on out interests and behaviors – about which we leave clear digital traces – and then accordingly introduces us to certain topics and then directs us to precisely defined content, and through our response to that content we qualify ourselves for those products that are eventually offered to us. And we them happy, convinced that we alone have finally found exactly what we were looking for.

And what happens when that same mechanism is used when we want to persuade someone to love or hate another man because of their nation, religion, race? Strengthening of the populist parties and movements across the world, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the circus with hacked emails during the presidential campaign in the United States, and the tragicomic testimonies of Mark Zuckerberg about the oversights (!?) that enabled the abuse of personal data of Facebook users… all these represent only the tip of the ice berg, and give us only vague outlines of the world we are living in.

This is that “brave new world” in which free will is increasingly becoming a mere illusion. The almighty algorithms we have surrendered to have influence on our beliefs and affect our behavior. Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Augmented Reality (AR) make these mechanisms of influence more and more invisible as they erase the boundaries between the real and the virtual, making the individual lonelier and more isolated, and thus more susceptible to manipulation.

At the same time, this same technology is a tool that gives us the opportunity to successfully begin to tackle pressing global problems – from climate change to growing inequalities. Why then is this not happening faster? In order for this new technology to serve man and enable human species to prosper, this area must first be regulated and defined by clear rules. First and foremost, it is necessary to regulate the legal and regulatory framework in which it will exist and work. Ivan Stanković described it very well in his text on C2. The problem is that this issue cannot be solved at the level of national states, but only globally. And there, unfortunately, there seems to be neither enough willpower nor enough initiative. And it is absent, among other things, because politics is one of the market segments in which these new marketing approaches are massively applied.

Political topics have become a part of the entertainment program, political campaigns are planned and realized as spectacles, and the elections are an act of televoting to expel or support your favorite in a reality show. Just look around you. Turn on the closest TV, and watch the ‘live feed from the assembly’. Are there any fundamental differences between some survivor, big brother or any other reality show and the parliamentary assembly? Similarities aren’t accidental. In order for this system to function, it is necessary to create topics that are subject to strong basic emotions – love, hatred, fear, anger… It impels a person to take sides based on that feeling, and then pushes them to identify with a group, not to say to a party, that demands from them unconditional belonging. And let’s not play naïve, a great contribution to the system that makes this possible comes from the marketing and PR agencies that actively participate in this.

That is why it is absolutely valid to ask everyone in these agencies who are involved in the planning and execution of these and similar campaigns, as well as the army of programmers who code and spurt out the tools for perfecting all these “weapons of mass persuasion”: Do you even have an idea what you are doing? Most will answer they’re just doing their job. Haven’t we heard that one already somewhere? That same question was asked by Chelsea Manning in her Montreal lecture, paraphrasing the well-known ethical principle that “the fact that we can do something, doesn’t mean we should do it”.

The technology that promised to connect the world and unite it is threatening to ultimately divide it. Walls and barbed wires are already growing all around us. For some of us literally in front of our nose. And we can see them clearly, we just pretend it has nothing to do with us. Some other wires, fences and walls aren’t really visible, which doesn’t mean they are less dangerous and that we won’t get walled in by them.

Let’s be aware that the future has already arrived – it’s just unevenly distributed. It’s up to us.