Viewpoint: Putting our power to good use

Tim Maytom

With the constant stream of data breaches, fake news and ad fraud, it can be hard to remember the good that digital marketing can do beyond driving revenues. Tim Maytom calls for a more positive approach to addressing the industry's problems.

It’s extremely easy to be cynical when it comes to writing these columns. Working in an area as image-conscious as marketing, every press release and statement that we see is brimming with positivity, every firm a global leader, every case study filled with declarations of innovation and ‘best ever’ results. If the past couple of years have proved anything, it’s that the digital marketing industry is filled with mistakes, oversights and bad actors, many of whom are working just as hard as the honest elements to exploit data, mislead customers and skim off their portion of revenue.

So, when I sit down to write my opinions on whatever’s been happening in the industry lately, there’s a constant temptation to try to slice through the BS and talk about what’s wrong. But with so many problems, and the same issues constantly arising, that approach starts to grind in its own way. We all know that digital marketing needs more transparency, that fraud is rife and that criminal elements are exploiting the tools we’ve built to launder money and pull in revenues. We also know that some of the smartest people in the world are working on addressing these problems, and with a bit more transparency and a bit more funding, those efforts could have a real impact on improving the ecosystem we rely on.

So, in that spirit of honesty and positivity, let’s talk about some solutions rather than problems. One of the biggest clouds hanging over the industry at the moment is the fake news scandal. It seems like all of the biggest players were somehow implicated in the spread of misinformation and propaganda, especially in the lead up to the 2016 US Presidential election and the UK referendum on leaving the EU. Platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter have all been used to muddy the political discourse, encourage division between voters, and undermine the power of the free press.

The controversies that have emerged from this have been well covered, and the platforms involved have already pledged to take steps that will hopefully weed out those producing fake news, and reduce its power. But rather than just addressing the flaws in the system, why can’t tech companies push towards positive steps that will hopefully repair the damage caused? If the fake news scandal has taught us anything, its that social media can have a substantive impact on politics – why can’t that be a positive thing?

The US is gearing up for the mid-term elections at the moment, and there’s no shortage of news stories and think pieces out there decrying the low level of voter participation. With their vast reach and ability to target people based on their location, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others could not only provide users with a quick path to voter registration sites, but could even guide users to their closest polling station on the day.

At the start of this month, a single Instagram post by Taylor Swift encouraging followers to register to vote triggered a spike in registrations, with 65,000 signing up at Vote.org within a single 24-hour period. For context, that equals almost a third of the registrations that the organisation saw in the entirety of September, and more than it had in all of August. That’s one celebrity, albeit one with 112m followers on Instagram. Imagine what a concerted effort across all of Facebook’s platforms could do, especially if some of its biggest influencers were to sign on to take part.

Voter registration could be just that start. Most tech companies avoid advocating political positions, quite wisely, but one issue that many have spoken up over is net neutrality. Some have even run campaigns in the past encouraging users to contact local lawmakers when legislation that would weaken laws protecting it have been on the books. With the FCC threatening to reduce protections in the US, why aren’t we seeing constant reminders for users to call senators and representatives, and let them know this important issue won’t be ignored?

Whenever the issue of ad blocking raises its head, we’re told that it undermines the value exchange that is one of the central pillars of the internet, so how about the same firms who argue this protecting some of the other central facets of online life, like funding Wikipedia or raising money for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Open Data Institute and others? Law firms do pro bono work, recognising their responsibility to the institute of the law and their communities – where are the ad tech firms offering pro bono ad campaigns and digital transformation for charities, non-profit organisations and local councils.

I realise that many of the things I’m calling for here already exist in some form, but a larger push towards them could help heal the reputation of some of these firms, and also remind us that the power of the internet and the digital world doesn’t have to trend towards humanity’s darkest impulses. If we’re all going to be connected, we have a duty to ensure those connections are positive, and moving society forward.