Leanings aside, for the first time this election taught us that ad tech could be weaponized, able to assault us with precisely targeted Hate content in tidal waves of that drowned out truth. Automation gave anyone, including the most hateful voices, easy content publication capabilities. And publish they did — at prodigious rates — overwhelming facts.
This is why, in the post-election shambles, we are a nation deeply divided because we are a nation bereft of shared truths.The emotional fallout can, justifiably, be laid at the feet of ad tech and I say this as an ad tech CEO. In the interest of profits, ad tech takes the position that as tools, we are not accountable for the bad stuff. This is as lame an argument as when gun manufacturers make it. People have a right to expect reasonable safety measures but ad tech added none of these basic measures. Instead of rising to be guardians of the best connectedness can contribute, ad tech made it easy for the worst voices in our midst to have a new amplification platform.
The technologies I focus on below are deserving of extra scrutiny because, in my opinion, they inflicted the most damage on the national consciousness in the name of profits. We are all just now wakening up to the consequences.
1) Content recommendation engines: Content recommendation engines created millions of echo chambers that completely framed the stories people heard so that lies, told often enough, became truths. The more outrageous the story, the more clicks and distribution it got, the more users’ feeds became monotone.
Algorithms only show us what it thinks we should see and algorithms have a stunning lack of imagination. Gone is the serendipitous opportunity to expose ourselves to a richness of voices and exchanges we would normally experience.
Yet it didn’t need to be so. Ad tech ventures can, technically, allow users’ tools to control their content so that they decide what they see and from who. This hasn’t happened because that level of control throttles the venture’s audience scalability which suppresses revenue.
In “Profits” versus “Ethics” SmackDown — score 1 for Profits.
2) Social media (mostly Facebook):
Social media in general but Facebook specifically is deserving of attention because of the near universal access to easy content distribution tools. Never did the purveyors of Hate have a better friend than in Facebook.
During this election, also for the first time, we learned the real price of “free” ad tech platforms — our transcendent national sensibility that rose above partisanship because we shared national truths. This was stolen from us because free ad tech platforms don’t gate false or hateful content until after it is published.
Previously, a critical check on political propaganda and false advertising was traditional journalism which was paid for in the form of subscriptions. This safety valve was washed away in the ad tech boom so that anyone with a bit of tech know how could game the platforms to blur the edges between news, PR, and ad content making it hard for audiences to separate fact from fiction.
Don’t doubt for a moment that the lowest election turnout in 20 years (Source: CNN) was a direct consequence of the disgraceful discourse that permeated Facebook — a leading “News” channels for many segments. Who can blame them?
The obvious solution is to integrate more rigorous proactive content curation but that is highly disruptive to these automation-heavy, people-light business models. It is stunning that Facebook, with a market cap of ~$350 Billion has only about 12,000 employees whereas comparably valued GE has 300,000 employees. I ask you, how much hands-on curation can 12,000 folks possibly do?
Profit — two points. Ethics zero.
3) Ad networks and content syndication platforms
Ad networks and content syndication platforms need audiences to drive revenue and the sheer spectacle of Trump was so profitable that they happily promoted outrageous content in the name ad revenue. Their automated buying platforms care about only about revenue optimization not context or accuracy, so not many bothered to substantiate content or worry about the emotional cost to our national psyche.
Profit — three. Ethics — nada.
There you have it. This election was less a battle of policy or ideology but a battle of who was the more scalable storyteller. And in this battle between authentic storytelling versus hateful storytelling — Hate came out on top powered by ad tech. The lack of basic checks and balances, such as industry-wide blacklist of hateful or irresponsible “publishers,” is motivated by profits.
This is a wake-up call to do better. We can and we must.