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Beyond The Great Hack: spin versus reality and what’s next for social data analysis  

In light of the growing adoption of social media analysis by research and insight professionals, Dr. Jillian Ney unpicks the problem with the recent Netflix documentary, The Great Hack.  As a contrast to the ethical research papers presented at ESOMAR World Congress, which begins in Edinburgh today, she identifies the questions that were notably absent from the documentary, and looks to the future of legislation in the social intelligence industry.

As a social intelligence professional, I made a point of watching the recent Netflix documentary, The Great Hack. Having heard about it, I thought that the film had the potential to be amazing. Unfortunately, the finished product left me disappointed on several fronts and concerned for the perception of the industry surrounding the analysis of social data (social intelligence).

In early 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal reached worldwide recognition (thanks mainly to Cambridge Analytica’s links with the successful Trump and Brexit campaigns), so there was always going to be a lot of interest in The Great Hack. It was a story that needed to be told, but, for me, this wasn’t the right story, or the one that the public deserved.

 

Fact checking

 A key problem for me was the fact that the documentary took Cambridge Analytica’s over-inflated sales deck claims as 100% truth, without offering much in the way of fact-checking. The documentary did little to probe into the claims of Cambridge Analytica and separate what was spin and reality.  After all, Cambridge Analytica was a company that traded in “spin”. The question is, how much of their own story was spin?

We have yet to find out.

Likewise, as the focus of the documentary followed the investigative panels in the UK and the USA, there was little in the way of shedding any real light on the story. I suspect there was a little authority bias at play in the creation of the documentary. A bias that suggested the people governing our democracies held the knowledge to follow the right line of questioning, and that would be a strong enough focus for the documentary – it wasn’t.

Back when the Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing was televised, I remember shouting at the stupid questions being asked – they entirely missed the point.  The focus on business models and advertising was naïve at best and dangerously uninformed at worst. The disbelief and relief on Zuckerberg’s face said it all.

Other investigations did better, but they were not tackled in the documentary.  For example, I know that the outcome of the Information Commissioner’s Office investigation questioned into how deeply ‘personality insights’ played a role in the campaign targeting. A suspicion I had myself, but not explored in The Great Hack.

Instead, we’re told that psychological warfare operations (psy-ops) were waged upon us. With no real explanation into where the data from social media played a role in making that happen.  For me, I need specifics, not a brochure or pitch deck that casually mentions “Facebook data” as part of a supposed methodology.  What is clear is that social media was the vehicle to send communications that manipulated existing biases.  My question here, is that not what marketing sets out to do?

 

Puzzling it out

Change has always happened faster than policy can handle, but we’re are at a time in history when technological development has the potential to yield devastating unintended consequences due to how people choose to use technology, and the “holes” in policy that allow them to do so.  Cambridge Analytica is a direct result of these unintended consequences.  While we are still identifying many new unintended consequences that have been created from social networking sites (for example, misinformation, disinformation, anxiety, depression) the sites themselves cannot have sole responsibility for fixing the mess – policy and legislation has a big role to play.

Let’s face it, all of this is new, and probably isn’t going to be the only story we hear of. There’s a lack of experts who can understand what happened, and work to define policy to safeguard us in the future.  There’s another complication from the interpersonal influence that we exert on each other via social networking sites, and the need to understand this phenomenon better.  Then there’s the fact that these social networking sites are commercial entities with a responsibility to shareholders as well as their customers. If policy does not exist to limit or stop practices, they are not breaking the law, and have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to make money.

As a global society we are still in a dangerously vulnerable position.

Ethical practices of social intelligence do not allow you to analyse, profile and then retarget the same individual, research is conducted at a macro rather than an individual level.  However, it does not mean that it cannot happen.  The Cambridge Analytica story is about the use of social data, the reported personality insights from the quiz app, as well as being able to retarget individuals based on assigned characteristics via the same platform. Something that does not happen for ethical reasons in other forms of research but is achievable in social media, the internet and other digital technologies (as they profile our behaviour).

Does this boil down to whether data analysis, including social data, alternative data, trace data is regarded research? Some say it is a secondary source of information, and therefore, not true primary research. I would counter that it is primary research, that we are just asking the questions and collecting the responses in a new way. I’d also argue that we need to be bound by ethical legislation when it comes to analysing ‘personal data’.

 

Missing questions

As a piece of investigative filmmaking, I personally feel that The Great Hack should have, firstly, established whether Cambridge Analytica ever actually had the technology or capabilities they claimed. This is a question I’ll turn to in the second part of this ‘Beyond The Great Hack’ series.

There are lots of further questions that should have started to be addressed in The Great Hack. How was this allowed to happen? Was this really just the new marketing science? Does it only happen in politics? Should we be allowed to retarget individuals that are being tracked online? What’s happening in the growing social data analysis industry? Fortunately, The Social Intelligence Lab aims to continue that discussion for the good of us all.


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Jillian Ney
Jillian Ney
I'm the founder of The Social Intelligence Lab. I champion the growth of the social intelligence industry by helping the professionals and businesses working in it to access best practice, accredited training and peer networking. After working in the industry for 12 years I believe social intelligence should become a recognised discipline - and, I'm working towards making that a reality. More content by

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