Microtargeting 2020's Diverse Customer + The AI Conundrum + Animated Sir Richard Branson

I strongly believe that ownership of private data will be one of the most pressing digital issues of 2020. It's really not about fixing privacy, the FB's Cambridge Analytica incident and the reasoning how easily private data can be used to sway behaviors and influence people, on the contrary, raises awareness about how valuable digital privacy is and how social media platforms are harvesting user data. Agreed majority of the social media landscape offers a free platform and we are the product argument. Agreed businesses/ advertizers use platforms like Facebook to advertise and micro-target users based on publicly available data (Targeted Advertising). Agreed, social media also has the ability to track non-users to target ads.  It is scary that many social media platforms can package user data (data collection) and sell it to third-party brokers and the user data points are left vulnerable to exposure and manipulations including but not limited to  ‘phishing’ for personal data by scammers. Check out this report on the workings of data collection :

OUT OF CONTROL How consumers are exploited by the online advertising industry

In his latest bid to crack down on scammers using his name and image online, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson has released an animated guide to spotting a scam in the wake of deepfakes (Wikipedia: a portmanteau of "deep learning" and "fake") is a branch of synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else's likeness using artificial neural networksbecoming more commonplace. Beware of bogus Bransons: The entrepreneur launches an animated guide to help fight the worrying rise of online fraud:

Customer profiling has been a tool marketers have had in their toolkits for many years. Often times the best and most innovative products have reaped in gains and profits when they have been able to segment their customers' diversity. I'm not a big fan of the politicized definition of customer segmentation or profiling, but despite the merits, it has its obvious downside and upside at the same time. Microtargeting is (also called micro-targeting or micro-niche targeting) is a marketing strategy that uses consumer data and demographics to identify the interests of specific individuals or very small groups of like-minded individuals and influence their thoughts or actions. I wish the application of this definition was just as simple. It gets more complex when micro-targeting is used extensively to achieve the opposite i.e., it can be used as a tool for exclusion than inclusion. It's like having the ability to say different things to different people. It can both be seen as a bane and boon because where technology can be used to show the right creativity to the right person who is willing to consume a product or a service, it can also be used to influence and sway them negatively via fake creatives and misleading information and even exclude them altogether especially when adverts are employment, housing or politics related.

There is no ambiguity in understanding that social media gives a certain advantage: the ability to 'micro-target' their ads. Microtargeting can significantly improve ad performance by targeting audiences more accurately and it also comes at the cost of user privacy where they inadvertently go from being the customer to being the product. As a business owner, I have used microtargeting to reach out to people who are interested in Diversity, Inclusion, Equality, and Human Rights for instance. Being a Jewelry Designer, I have focused my brand ads to reach out to people interested in Jewelry, Luxury, and Shopping. The results have been more than satisfactory.

However, with the proliferating A.I. and smart algorithmic tools, with the sophistication of online data analytics available to marketers, courtesy of social media platforms with their ability to have full access to all information that users share on them also means that it is possible for marketers to understand their customers and profile them like never before often encouraging discrimination like including a certain demographic cohort in their feeds and making their feeds invisible to a certain few! 

This is largely due to the explicit bias they have that reflects not only in their decision-making process but also their apparent reach outs should they intend to include a diverse segment of customers. Many brands are still reveling in their privileged ignorance despite the visible thrust and a standout theme of bringing diversity in messaging to attract diverse customers. Here, I'm talking about the evolution of profiling in the digital realms but rewind a bit and we realize that this has been an eternal modus operandi and profiling has been the de facto secret code of discrimination even in the physical domain. Do recall the infamous Oprah Winfrey incident when a sales assistant in the luxury Swiss boutique, Trois Pommes, refused to show her a luxury handbag because it was 'too expensive'. It created a furor! In my most recent memory, is another incident that rocked the inclusion boat: A former Versace employee sued the company for unfair business practices claiming that the luxury fashion label used a secret "code" to alert employees when a black customer entered the store. Take the physical to the digital. It's ten times more rampant and visibly prevalent because of technology.

I did an article on this that got scrapped because it was deemed to be stirring up a hornets' nest. It had insights from research I did for a high-street brand in 2014, the outcome of which cannot be fully published, In the survey, I asked customers if they ever had a hair-flicking, lip-biting moment when they were ignominiously ignored, unceremoniously treated by the sales staff while being busy servicing other premium customers?  No, this wasn’t a discriminating survey. I surveyed everyone regardless of the differences. People surveyed noticed some sort of discrimination on perceived differences based on race, skin color, obesity, sexual orientation, disability, and all forms of negative psychology that can possibly be applied to a diverse customer. 

Ditto for employers, recruiters who use microtargeting to discriminate and exclude older professionals for instance. Heck, there are Artificial Intelligence Video Interviews happening where technology decides which candidate should get shortlisted for a given role based on a candidate's distinct characteristics like facial features, voice, etc. We really don't know what established criteria the employers and recruiters who use such software have fed into their absolute must-have checklist into AI technology. 

Many AI companies claim to be countering unconscious bias through these means but where is the inclusion in it when the technology is taught to exclude?

When marketers think about - whom they're marketing to, who is their target customer - they typically have very distinct demographics in mind and working around profiling and segmentation becomes a major part of it. Political ads barring, Facebook has been very focused on its anti-discrimination policies. This has been very welcoming although I have nothing to with Politics and Housing personally and professionally it is welcoming to see steps being taken to curtail the use of technology for discriminating on distinguishing characteristics of users for employment at least.

But again, Facebook is being highly selective in this approach which obviously perpetuates mistrust of the platform's larger intentions. Facebook has said that it would not make any major changes to its political advertising policies, which may allow divisive and misleading information in the ads, despite pressure from lawmakers who say the company is abdicating responsibility for what appears on its platform. However, Facebook's decision is likely to harden criticism of its political ad practices heading into this year's presidential election in the USA. Twitter, on the other hand, has banned political ads from its site. Whatever the case, there is no doubt we will certainly see the beginning of major changes in the related social media landscape in 2020 and the years to come.

-Amit Anand