We Are Beyond 1984 and Emmanuel Goldstein, The Enemy of the People, Has Been Dethroned
If you’re like me, the complaining you see online and all the trolling directed at you stems from insecurity. If you’re like me, you take responsibility for your actions. If someone complains about a social post I make, I’m yelling inside, “‘then just opt out!” We all agreed to give up our privacy when we got a Gmail address but some business owners profit heavily by choosing to use the monolithic advertising platform that is Facebook. The company supposedly “researching AI technologies” but owns Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus VR, FriendFeed, LiveRail, and now it’s own currency is not one to put your head in the sand about. What many people outside of the media world don’t know is that we are their AI focus group. Also, there are a million articles about Amazon employees listening to personal Alexa conversations to “determine consumer behavior and match them up with the right ads.” If you don’t care about the long term implications of this, you can stop reading now.
At this point, it’s safe to say we all gave up our privacy. We carry networked listening and video recording devices on us at all times, we openly share everything about ourselves short of our social security numbers, and you can argue that we do it all willingly.
As an advertiser who remembers what marketing was like before the digital revolution, I get to take part in the other side of this exchange. I strategically place ads on Facebook’s and Google’s platforms and I get to target people based on demographic and behavioral data gleaned from your online activity. This is essential to why we have been defined as a data-driven, business development driven performance-based advertising and branding agency. We are our client’s ‘freedom’ team. To me, the loneliest part of business ownership is the fact that everyone assumes “being your own boss” means having the most freedom. In fact, we have the least. Freedom to me is having more choices. When it comes to the platforms we use to reach an audience, there is no choice.
My privacy concerns are both personal and professional. Yes, I am concerned about the potential for people at those companies to tap into private exchanges or sensitive files. I’m more concerned about what they do with that data and how it will affect people’s daily lives. It is creepy that people at Amazon can overhear what I say near my Alexa or ask Siri to do. Us business owners know we do not have a 9–5 job. What I am concerned about in life carries over into business. My main concern as a Founder & CEO of a company — whose clients are depending on them for business growth — is how the personal data Facebook and other companies have amassed has made them indispensable to every marketing department in the free world. Even without paid spend, we have always been of the direct-to-consumer (not of the number of impressions or how many eyeballs could see something) model and our experiential campaigns were geared for the audiences our clients were chasing. So, I can run my branding and advertising agency without them, but I’d have to do so under another business model we have in-house talent for. But at some point, my clients will need to show off their brand builds and I trust us to do that better than anyone else. It would feel like giving her baby up for adoption and hoping they find good parents. Well, I’m not built to trust that process. Ultimately, my clients would have to contend with the tech behemoths.
The power they hold over my company, and every media outlet, is disconcerting. It’s an affront to my autonomy. At any moment they could shut down all the ads we have running, they could shut down our client’s ad accounts for no reason, they could take over 10 days to get a new start-up account going without ever giving specifics. And they have. This puts our company’s financial wellbeing in jeopardy. We grow alongside our clients.
As Facebook continues ramping up their AI technologies — an effort that comes off the public scrutiny following the Cambridge-Analytica scandal — they’ve chosen to err on the side of censorship. We recently had an entire ad account for a well-regarded urologist banned because, of course, their practice involves dealing with people’s sexual health and “naughty bits.” It was an article that taught me the impact hereditary facts had on surface-level men’s health issues. Yet I can read an article with so many untruths, and we are banning the ones from doctors that save lives.
There is no regard for the fact that this practice’s Facebook page is educating people on very real risks, like when you need to get checked for prostate cancer. Kidney stones can be an indicator of major health problems, but of course, Facebook can’t distinguish between a serious health discussion and a scammer trying to sell cheap pills, even if your client is the go-to urologist for comment at magazines like Prevention, Men’s Health or Glamour Magazine. Earned media is not easy and it’s the only kind we do. Getting our clients in Fast Company and the like gives our clients the authority and visibility they need to scale faster, and in turn the publications they’re in benefit as well. None of this could happen without Facebook’s Ads Manager.
At first I thought I needed to be better at playing into Facebook’s policies. According to this worthwhile exposé on Facebook’s recent troubles, we aren’t the only ones having troubles like this. Even the article’s publisher (a magazine I subscribe to and admire the talent of the writers and the designers on their team) ran into issues: “One day, traffic from Facebook suddenly dropped by 90 percent, and for four weeks it stayed there. After protestations, emails, and a raised eyebrow or two about the coincidence, Facebook finally got to the bottom of it. An ad run by a liquor advertiser, targeted at WIRED readers, had been mistakenly categorized as engagement bait by the platform. In response, the algorithm had let all the air out of WIRED’s tires.”
More recently, an Instagram model was banned from the service for offering to send nude photos to anyone who donated to nonprofits supporting fire relief in Australia. Obviously they don’t want porn being hocked on their platform. It’s notoriously difficult to characterize the difference between nudity and pornography, but it seems clear that context is being lost on the robots. Truth be told, I’ve had people at Facebook (when I get to talk to a real person) tell me they have no idea why an ad was declined or an account was shut down. A bot may have believed we violated their rules, but when we requested a human review of our ads and overturn the verdict, the people almost always saw our side.
This all gets creepier, though. While going through the process of overruling a temporary halt on my own company’s ads, the system asked me a series of questions. It showed me a photo posted on my company’s page several years ago. In it, an employee was holding a red plastic cup. It asked me if it was a Solo cup and if there was alcohol in it. This was never run as an ad. These were photos of our company culture from way back in the day. It was literally in a photo album with no offending caption. Why does the bot need to know what brand of cup we were using and what we were drinking out of it?
As accounts continue to be disabled or given restricted access to where you can only run ads for link clicks, for photos as far back as seven years ago, the less we will see support for small business. They’re forcing business owners to reason with robots on their customer support system, and you may not even suspect it’s an AI because of course, they have names. Facebook is now disabling accounts that have ads leading to online landing pages that may not have an image alt tag, for example, so their collaboration with Google has become increasingly advanced. Basically, I suspect everyone with a Facebook account and a Gmail email address has an individual pixel with unimaginable amounts of personal data on them.
Facebook’s ad policies might be well-intended, but in practice, it’s hard to discern any rhyme or reason when one A/B testing an ad. One will get disapproved and the other will keep running and the only difference between them are images that pass their 80/20 rule. An account for a new technology startup that allows people to find affordable housing get banned before we ever run an ad. Yet when a land development group who targets the top 5% of the ultra-wealthy has no problems with ‘housing designations’, I do have to wonder what this all means. Our own account was banned this year. Does that make THE MAN fair, or does that mean we weren’t shut down for contributing to their ad revenue? Previous social media marketing directors have run ‘native’ ads (a term Facebook used at the time and stopped because it had another definition than the one marketers use), and it’s clear that your ad won’t be seen as much if you don’t run to their Audience Network. Do me a favor and save eighty trees I killed printing their network out: Know unless you uncheck ‘gaming sites’ when promoting an ad or see what pages their ‘audience network’ is composed of, it’s very likely your ad account could be disabled or shut down for using said platform’s audience network.
I think the human moderators can see that a lot of advertisers with perfectly decent intentions are being implicated under this “ban first, ask questions later” regime. From a performance-based agency’s point of view, people will start censoring themselves as they shift their to work within Facebook guidelines, which in turn will lead to less authenticity. The irony is their latest policies are in support of creating and fostering communities so users can make “true connections.” You can’t do that if what is happening is censorship and AI gone awry.
Taking a step back to a macro view of these vague policies, I have to question the purpose of items they are scanning for that are so random (solo cups?) and are of no concern to their actual policies. This AI that is learning to distinguish between one brand of party cups and another might be used to seek out troll farms, but it seems like they’re training this system for something less righteous.
Why do they ban vape pods but not vitamins and supplements when both are not FDA- approved but children take supplements every day? Are they contributing so much to PACs that they are part of the government? We’ll never know since they settled all the lawsuits against them. The big picture, and maybe it’s because my daughter is 10, is that we are taking generations that are acquiring mental issues such as isolation and depression from social channels and do not know what healthy confrontation means. They don’t know the value of human communication. That’s how you learn about people that are different than you. That’s how you learn that people aren’t one-dimensional like their glamorous Instagram feeds connote. That’s how you learn about the less fortunate. That’s how you develop the quality I want her to have more than anything, and that is compassion.
It’s easy to get conspiratorial when talking about a monolithic tech giant that has massive amounts of information on you and everyone you know. It’s only made worse by the fact that there is really no way for advertisers to “quit” Facebook or Google. There is no recourse outside of hoping these mega-corporations are going to do the right thing. So, do you think Facebook is our friend?