How does one know if marketing is effective? In the light of last week’s Congressional interrogation of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it appears that many in Congress believe Cambridge Analytica’s questionable use of 87 million Facebook members’ personal data actually may have influenced the election.
But how do we know if use of the data from those millions of Facebook subscribers actually had that much of an impact?
George Friedman, in his weekly “Geopolitical Futures” article of April 11, 2018, entitled, “Marketing and the Delegitimization of Elections,” raised this unasked question. His answer shines a whole new light on how the effectiveness of social media may or may not be changing political perceptions.
We know that the use of the Internet for purchases has been growing. Friedman noted that just because online advertising is growing does not mean it is any more effective. The answer is that we simply don’t know. There is no data to back up the assertion. Were voters influenced or not? How many were and how many had already made up their minds? In those cases, no ad was going to alter their thinking.
My experience talking with both Trump supporters and opponents is that both sides had their minds made up long before Cambridge Analytica made its personalized sales pitches using Facebook data.
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know either, but if he admitted this fact, the effectiveness of his company’s ads would be devalued in the eyes of potential ad buyers. Facebook’s bottom line, according to Friedman, is tied to accessibility to potential customers and the ability to persuade people to change their minds. But how has this changed with Internet advertising as opposed to traditional marketing, except to make it more efficient and more powerful?
Politicians trying to shift voter attitudes is as old as the republic itself. Did Cambridge Analytica and Russian hackers actually discover a nonrational way to force voters to change their opinions? If the answer is yes, then our nation is in deep trouble because representative democracy depends on intelligent, thoughtful voters making good decisions. It is possible that putting up this argument is a way for the losers in the 2016 election to cope with their failure to win their elections? No one likes to lose and for the Democrats who believe in skullduggery by Facebook, Russian hackers and Cambridge Analytica, the sting of defeat might be mitigated – at least in their minds.
We know from Homeland Security that no votes were actually tampered with in the 20 or so state election agencies that were hacked into by the Russians during the 2016 elections. The purpose of the ads was not mainly to favor one candidate over the other as much as it was to sow discord and division in an already discordant and divided nation. The goal of the Russians was to delegitimatize trust in our democracy through the use of “fake news” (also known as lies).
The problem the Russians have now is that there is a great deal of anger from both Democrats and Republicans against the hackers. Having a common enemy is an effective means to cover over differences between political ideologies and unite the nation against a common foe. It seems the Russians weren’t as clever as they thought they were. In the short run they may have sown discord, but in the long run, they actually might have helped to stir unity into a polarized nation.
Facebook’s data-gathering business plan and the anger against Russian hackers and Cambridge Analytica may actually be the tonic needed to reunite the nation behind a common cause. Time will tell.
In the meantime, Americans are beginning to shed their naiveite about the Internet and election campaigns. To paraphrase a famous quote: “Fool us once, shame on you, fool us twice, shame on us.”