This blog is featured courtesy of Makovsky and was originally featured here.

Since the dawn of social media, I’ve believed that social platforms would emerge as an essential part of business communications because of their ability to help organizations build stronger and more direct relationships with target audiences and influencers.

However, the rise of today’s digital ad technology, which provides much of the revenue that allows people to access social platforms for free, appears to be stoking a showdown between the benefits of social and online media, and its dark side. What do I mean by dark side? The digital analyst and author Brian Solis  recently explained it in a recent post titled, The Technology Behind Psychographic Marketing Can Be Used for Good, Evil, or Advertising.

In the post, Solis recalled that a paper he wrote 10 years ago for a government entity on social media discussed how “psychographic targeted advertising and content could be used to create informed and productive online communities. Instead, we saw this work used to polarize communities and incite negative interaction.” He added “the problem is that [people] don’t know when they are being manipulated. I hate to say that, but [the techniques] are so compelling, so efficient and so effective that it is scary.”

It’s certainly not new or shocking information that some social media users prefer to limit the content they see and don’t read multiple viewpoints. Or that sometimes the platforms automatically do that for them by observing their online behavior and directing them to information.   Of course, it’s everyone’s right and prerogative in democratic societies to read what they want. 

But what’s become troubling is that new digital ad technology opened the use of the social platforms for more nefarious purposes. Not solely political propaganda, but also consumer scams (marketing offers for fraudulent products and services), inappropriate communications to children, doctoring of photographs, etc.

New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo devoted a column recently to this growing issue which he feels has created a virtual Wild, Wild West, filling the online world with “chaos and disrepute.” In singling out a villain behind all this, Mr. Manjoo pointed his finger at the advertising business since “ads are the lifeblood of the internet, the source of funding for just about everything you read, watch and hear online.” While it is true that ads fund the Internet, frankly I think he’s fingered the wrong entity.

In my view, the real issue is with the social media platforms themselves. Witness the just-disclosed news that a research firm (Cambridge Analytica) working with the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, was said by Facebook to have “broke its data policies,” having “improperly kept Facebook user profile data for years despite saying it had destroyed those records,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The research firm was also alleged to have taken the liberty of harvesting the friend networks of the 270,000 users it paid to reach – collecting personal data on 50+ million people that it also kept, per a report in Wired.

It’s the social media platforms, not the advertising folks, that hold the power to address flaws in their ad buying and targeting systems. In my view, if they take the lead and make appropriate adjustments to how their ad distribution systems work, the ad business will adjust strategies as necessary.

Unfortunately, the platforms have lagged in regulating themselves and establishing best practices for the ads and other content that they distribute.( Facebook, for example, has taken some steps to correct the situation, although its efforts have been met with some skepticism.)   The danger is if they don’t self-regulate, they may find that at some point in the future the government may do it for them. It may already be too late.

Ken Makovsky is Founder and President at Makovsky, an integrated communications and marketing firm. He is a trustee for the Institute for Public Relations.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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