Does The Ad Industry Have An Ethical Duty When Its Tools Are Used As Weapons?

If advanced audience-targeting platform Cambridge Analytica was -- as critics have charged -- used as a form of “weaponized propaganda” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, then Facebook was its ammunition.

That's one of the epiphanies revealed in a series of stories published by the New York Times over the weekend, which reported that Cambridge Analytica “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission,” which the paper described as a data “breach” enabling those users to be targeted based on their “private social media activity."

That Cambridge Analytica was opportunistic in exploiting the data isn’t that enlightening, but the fact that Facebook has done nothing to recover it raises new questions about the role the omnipotent social media network plays in manipulating how people feel, think and behave.



Meanwhile, a second epiphany revealed by the Times reporting raises questions about exactly who Cambridge Analytica was working for: no, not billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer, who invested in the firm and helped the Trump campaign team exploit its power, but an even more nefarious source.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Times reported that Cambridge Analytica had conversations with Russians interested in influencing the election and an affiliated company, SCL Group, has worked for Russians.

The revelations raise new questions not just for Cambridge Analytica or Facebook, but the entire programmatic media industry: Are there ethical, or even national security imperatives, that should check the constant push to innovate at all costs? Especially now, as we are beginning to leverage new data, new forms of machine learning and even more advanced AI, that can effectively weaponize our own behaviors and identities against us?

Last fall, as evidence began mounting that it wasn’t just Trump campaign operatives exploiting this technology, but also hostile foreign powers, I described the emergence of a new acronym in ad-tech’s lexicon: “WMD,” as in weapon of mass destruction. This weekend’s revelations affirm that acronym is apt.

Meanwhile, the industry, regulators and the public need to think about how to hold those platforms accountable. Even if it was nothing more than negligence, Facebook’s failure to respond to a 50-million-user data breach, on top of other recent transgressions, raises a new level of onus for the social network.

Whether regulators move in any meaningful way, let me conclude by asking a question directly of our readers: Is there a role for us -- advertisers, agencies, and all the ad -tech middlemen and third-party processors that do business with Facebook -- to call for changes and better safeguards?

For all ad industry’s talk about not supporting unsavory environments -- whether it is questionable content, piracy, malware and organized crime -- shouldn’t there also be some industry ethics against supporting a platform that can play a role in destabilizing democracy, and does nothing about it after the fact?

8 comments about "Does The Ad Industry Have An Ethical Duty When Its Tools Are Used As Weapons?".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 19, 2018 at 9:35 a.m.

    Joe, you raise an interesting question. There have been a number of times in the past when somewhat similar issues were raised---for example, wide spread concerns about the exccessive use of violence on primetime TV in the late 1950s or TV networks and stations happily accepting tobacco ad dollars---when it was known that cigarettes were killing millions of addicted people. In the former case, the networks responded---before the feds thought about stepping in---and dropped many of the "offending" shows; in the second case, the feds actually did step in and banned all cigarette advertising on TV.

    Just my opinion, but I doubt that advertisers or agency media buyers will band together to "pressure" or"punish" FB---assuming that it has culpability in this case----as there are too many varying goals and interests and there will be little unity on this matter due to its political aspect. On the other hand, I do see a rising groundswell of support  for Federal action to regulate the digital media landscape regarding cases such as this but also on the issue of monopoly control and misrepresentation of data. While that, too, has its political limitations, this seems the only path for cleaning up digital media ----in the general public interest-----much as is now beginning to happen in Europe.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 19, 2018 at 11:47 a.m.

    It depends how much we appreciate our Russian brothers and sisters like one big family. For sure, the Russians and Chinese, for example, are counting on our selfishie community not to care, look or listen. Some of the winners now will wind up as big losers. Either Zuckerborg winds up as a friendly oligarch or he gets "disappeared". Nostrovya ya'll.

  3. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, March 19, 2018 at 1:43 p.m.

    It is so sad that we even have to even talk about this.  We do have an ethical duty.  There is a right and a wrong.  As Bill Burnbach said, "A principal is not a principal until it costs you money".  

  4. Patrick Stroh from Brunner / data science, analytics, March 20, 2018 at 9:01 a.m.

    The term "breach" seems misleading.  It implies hacking.  Facebook, as near as I understand, gave them the keys to the front door (the Graph API?) and said "go ahead."  (The non destruction of data of course is not a breach either, just non compliance.)

  5. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, March 20, 2018 at 9:29 a.m.

    @Patrick Stroh: Interesting that it seems that way to you. My commentary wasn't a technical reference, but a response to the New York Times' coverage, which characterized it that way.

    That said, there are many definitions of the term "breach." The most common ones don't explicitly relate to computer hacking, but the failure to observe an agreement or code of conduct. I believe some of the regulators and law enforcement sources who are looking into it have characterized it as a breach of Facebooks terms of service, not explicitly a technological hack.


    an act of breaking or failing to observe a law, agreement, or code of conduct.
    "a breach of confidence"
    synonyms:contravention, violation, infringement, infraction, transgression, neglect; 
    "a clear breach of the regulations"

  6. Patrick Stroh from Brunner / data science, analytics replied, March 20, 2018 at 9:57 a.m.

    @joe.  You are correct.  I understand the legal angle (which is as you say the path of investigation) (although I still don't like using the term because it does imply tech breach, as opposed to non compliance).  But I accept your point.  My other point, however. is that FB gave them access (with an "understanding" or assurance of use), and their control of that seems loose.

  7. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, March 20, 2018 at 10:23 a.m.

    @Patrick Stroh: It isn't just a legal angle. It is literally what those sources meant by a data breach. Re. Facebook's assurances, tell that to Congress and state attorney generals who are looking into it.

  8. Patrick Stroh from Brunner / data science, analytics, March 20, 2018 at 10:43 a.m.

    For others to read if interested.  A fascinating back and forth between FB and critics. others to read if interested. 

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