Facebook – Hook then, Crook now???

Even since Donald Trump became the President of America in 2016, Facebook has been in the news. Almost for all wrong reasons. One being its alleged or now almost certain role in influencing the US presidential elections. On the one hand, is the allegation that Facebook used its staff to curate content on its news feed section so that Pro-Trump content were suppressed. On the other hand, is the role of Russian agents and the now infamous Cambridge Analytica working to promote Trump with targeted posts based on Facebook users’ profiles. In many countries including India, there has been a clamour for Mark Zuckerberg’s head for letting Facebook become a propaganda tool increasingly.

Consequently, we saw Zuckerberg being grilled live during the Congressional disposition over Right to Privacy, misuse of Data, Cambridge Analytica’s role,… What a climb down for a person who was once touted as the founder of the most wonderful thing on earth called Facebook since the Telephone! A platform which helped people across the world connect seamlessly.  A medium to make the world more Open and connected! A platform for sharing content without owning, creating any of it. A major disruption in the way we communicated!

Yet, all that is forgotten now when more and more facts emerge on the way Facebook handles our personal data. Today, Facebook has become one of “mindless disruptions” as someone said! To be fair to Zuckerberg, when he and his friends at Harvard conceived of a platform just to share profiles among Ivy league colleges and then scaled it up to a medium for connecting people, he would not have imagined that a day would come when he would be summoned for questioning by governments on the role of his medium in influencing elections in their countries! This could be added in the list of “What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School”, by the way! Even in a not so internet savvy country like India, today we are discussing if social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp played any role in the recent elections!  How did Facebook a hook then for pulling in and connecting people become a Crook now?

It’s clear that what started off just as a medium for connecting people ceased to be just one. Like other start-ups as Facebook grew, I am sure the usual question – “What’s the revenue model?” became overarching in terms of expanding the scope of the platform and looking at ways and means to monetise the same.  And once the IPO bug bites, as it did with Facebook in 2012, the urge to beat quarter on quarter numbers takes over. Then it becomes a matter of coming up with new ideas like using tools to analyse user profiles and sell to advertisers who can then use that for targeted messaging. And don’t all of them love this? Targeted messaging!

Also many times it happens that a manufacturer or marketer introduces a product for a particular purpose for a certain target Audience while consumers by themselves find other uses for the same. A great example which is part of marketing folklore is Johnson’s baby shampoo. J&J, the company intended its baby shampoo to be mild for use on babies. Research then revealed that the same product was being used by mothers too as they also preferred soft and mild shampoos! Similarly Facebook I’m sure, must not have realised that their platform which was intended for users to share updates in their lives, pictures, personal videos,… will be used for spreading hate messages! Or used to spread fake news. But unlike J&J which I don’t think capitalised on its findings by introducing a mild and soft shampoo meant for adults, probably Facebook played ball. It might have unwittingly or otherwise turned a blind eye to this trend of individuals/groups/organisations with vested interests making Facebook a platform for propaganda!

And we have the language issue! Just in a country like India we have so many languages in which we people converse and write. Can the AI powered bots and tools who keep sifting through terabytes of content isolate fake and propagandist news that keeps appearing on timelines of users?

It’s surprising that Zuckerberg and his team in Facebook waited till shit hit the fan! As users, we all are guilty of the fact that we accept terms and conditions mostly without reading and we don’t care so much to check the privacy settings or any changes thereof. I was surprised to read recently that Facebook has been listening to its users since 2014! And then realised that the microphone setting under Facebook on your phone should be turned OFF if you don’t want Facebook to listen to you!

Having now seen how Facebook deals with our personal data and our activity, should we shun Facebook? Right after the storm, #DeleteFacebook was trending and one saw many announcing to the world that they have quit Facebook. I think just like all aspects of technology, Facebook comes with its pros and cons. Just like say a smart phone. It depends on how we want to use the platform.

Recently Facebook announced that it has tied up with a local fact checking site called Boom live for Karnataka elections. This is seemingly in line with Zuckerberg’s commitment that Facebook will do all it can to “maintain the integrity of elections” in different countries including India.  While this could be a baby step in the right direction, I still feel that in a country like India more than Facebook, its cub WhatsApp is the monster in the room!

I think it makes enormous sense to be discreet on what we are sharing on Facebook or for that matter any social media.  And it doesn’t make sense to click, watch, like, comment or share many of the propaganda videos which keep surfacing in our timelines.

But as far as this piece is concerned you would realise that it’s neither propagandist or manipulative. So please do hit 👍, comment and share in all platforms as much as possible😀😀 Thank you!

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Marketing of Politics!!!

Last week’s explosive expose of Channel 4 on the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a British political consultancy firm in the Trump campaign has thrown up many questions on the devious marketing ways parties use, to influence voters.  At the outset, it would appear that CA has been doing nothing else but extending time-tested established marketing techniques to the political domain. For years, brands have used psycho graphic profiling of target consumers in addition to the more rudimentary demographic profiling to fine-tune their messaging. Extending this into the realm of political campaigns, particularly with the help of social media would seem to be a very logical thing to do. After all, one of the key attractions of digital marketing viz-a-viz traditional mass media is the possibility to deliver customized, targeted messaging based on individual likes and preferences.

As can be seen from the expose, what CA has been doing all along, is not as straight forward as it appears. It seems apart from profiling voters and using it for targeted messaging, manipulation of news, spreading fake news and playing on people’s fears,… have been part of the game. “Marketing of Politics” has indeed come a long way since 1960 when probably the 1st political mass media campaign was used by John F Kennedy against his rival Richard Nixon in the US elections.  Bruce Newman in his book, ‘The Handbook of Political Marketing’ in fact says, “This was the beginning of the modernization of marketing in political context”. Concepts like “Branding” and “Positioning” which were hitherto considered important in the marketing of consumer goods struck a chord with politicians and leaders during elections and they started “Branding” themselves.  From then to the 2016 presidential campaign with social media as the pivot, US has been leading the way in Political Marketing!

While all this seems plausible in developed and mature countries like the US, UK,… it indeed came as a surprise that a foreign political consultancy firm like CA has been operating in India in different avatars since 2010! In a vast country with voters of diverse social, educational, cultural, economic backgrounds as India, can advance techniques like targeted messaging through Social media be used to influence voting patterns in elections? This question gains added significance particularly when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook said this week that his organization is committed to upholding the integrity of elections around the world, including India. This statement in itself reveals that there was a possibility that Facebook would have been used to compromise elections in the past. With due respect to Zuckerberg’s intention, I do feel that this statement is more a marketing statement for the brand Facebook!  Be that as it may, the more fundamental question is – “Do Indian’s allow Marketing of Politics?”

As far as my memory goes, I think it was Rajiv Gandhi who brought in to Indian politics the concept of mass advertising campaigns way back in 1984. For the 1984 elections, Congress under Rajiv Gandhi had hired Rediffusion as their ad agency for their campaign which was largely print. In that election Congress, in the aftermath of a massive sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s death, got 3/4th majority in the Lok Sabha. So it’s not clear if the Rediffusion campaign around the theme of “Give Unity a Hand” played a big part in the victory. In the following election in 1989, Rediffusion was back doing the Congress campaign. However, the mega Rs. 25 crore “My heart beats for India” campaign couldn’t silence the boom of the Bofors gun scandal! Congress lost and I think it was the last time Rediffusion worked for Congress!

The subsequent elections all saw quite a bit of Political Marketing in India but, I guess that the next tipping point was the 2014 elections and the campaign of BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular. “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” is part of marketing case studies. Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy, the man behind this campaign however admitted that they or the media didn’t create “Brand Modi” and that they only amplified the features of the “Modi Brand” which already existed.

2014 is also when I guess, we saw the advent of professional election strategists like Prashant Kishor (PK) for the 1st time. There were election strategists in the past but they were from the party and subscribed to an ideology.  As we see now, PK is ideology agnostic and basically works with whichever party contracts him. Again looking at the track record of PK it’s been a mixed bag. As an election strategist who worked with Modi in 2014 and then with Nitish Kumar for Bihar elections, Congress for UP, Punjab and Gujarat elections, he has been successful only with a good product in the 1st place.  The old adage of “Great marketing cannot redeem a bad product” holds well in Political Marketing also.  However it’s abundantly clear that election strategists like PK have found their calling mainly with the advent of Social media.

In a country like India, even now traditional Social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,… remain an urban/semi urban/youth phenomenon.  Having millions of followers on Twitter or FB may not still ensure a victory in the hinterlands of India!  Having said that, it’s obvious that one takes these vehicles seriously as they are part of day-today narrative. I just heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the very early hoppers among Indian politicians onto the Social media band wagon, suggested to BJP MPs to be active on social media to communicate the party’s accomplishments. Because, he knows that today, Social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook feeds off to the conventional media. Conventional media picks up trends from Social media. “Breaking News” happens these days on Twitter. Trump fires his Secretary of State on Twitter! Notwithstanding all these, still using these for targeted messaging may only help brands (including political parties) reach urban, semi urban and youth audience. However there is one exception.

Among the social media vehicles, literally the elephant in the room or rather hand is WhatsApp. I believe that more than FB, Twitter, Instagram and Blog sites if there is one media which has the most exponential and explosive reach, it is WhatsApp. With anonymity part of its structure and design and primarily being accessible from a Smart phone, it can be conveniently used for spreading News, views and stuff masquerading as News. Today, I find that even educated and informed people get swayed by propagandist material doing the rounds on WhatsApp and do their bit by “forwarding as received” to their near and dear! Imagine the effect of this among more gullible voters in rural India!  And therefore, it has become the most potent medium for spreading fake news.  One cannot realistically expect one and all to do due diligence before forwarding something which they feel as interesting!

Therefore, it is not surprising that when Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent Facebook stories erupted, tremors could be felt in the political circles in India with parties scrambling to distance themselves as much as possible and blaming each other.  Social media, in particular vehicles like WhatsApp can today be used to deliver targeted messages that can easily influence voters. With the proliferation of WhatsApp groups, you have a set of people who have a certain common denominator.   And hence spreading an appealing message to them is cheap, quick and effective. Hence in the elections to come, unless regulated, I have no doubts in my mind that a medium like WhatsApp will be the most sought after during political campaigns.  It already is as we saw recently in Gujarat!  Marketing of Politics that too with Social media as the mainstay is here to stay!

No wonder then Marketing of Politics has now led to Politics over Marketing!!!

Pic Courtesy: NBC News