The Moral Ambiguity of the Social Media Manager

Research. Target. Plan. Execute. Learn. Do it again. The familiar routine of the social media manager. We’ve come a long way from measuring how many likes we can get and worrying if we could ever prove the ROI we had assured the higher ups was there. They were simpler times and most of us went in with the best of intentions — there was the sense that we where on the cusp of something special that would change the world… but we are in a much muddier, and unclear time about social media and its effect on our society and our public discourse. Did we lose our way or were we destined to end up where we are?

I’ve been reflecting on my journey through forging a career around social media, and how it’s changed the world — I recently was invited on a podcast ‘Social Minds’ from the excellent Social Chain. They wanted to know what are the changes I’ve seen since I started. I always used to joke that I had the only job in the world that when my boss comes over I need to quickly pull up Facebook rather than hide it with a well-rehearsed keystroke to bring up a spreadsheet.

Well, we’re a lot more professional now, we have a lot better data. We’re proud that we can target ‘tailored messages at scale’. It got me thinking about where we are now in Social. What price have we paid? Have we thought about the consequences for business, our politics, our culture and our society? Have we only got ourselves to blame for what feels like a world spinning out of control?

With trust plummeting, we no longer give social networks the benefit of the doubt — we are realising that for the last decade we have been involved in the trade-off of sharing our data for free access to social networks and the 150 dopamine hits a day from being glued to our phones.

As people who work with social media data, we are not necessarily at the sharp end of this conundrum (unless you have Cambridge Analytica in your CV) but we are in the equation, we use our marketing skills to leverage this data and speak to audiences in a way that makes them more likely to buy from a company. We get paid to do it. Have we thought about our part in this? We’re cogs in the wheel, that makes the system work, and have worked to refine how to make it effective.

Initially, this data trade-off seems a solid one — you get free access to a network where your friends and your passions are celebrated, and companies sell to us in more relevant targeted products.

But this comes with questions:
 Who owns the data?
 Who can access it?
 What are the limits, if any of what people can use it for?

So what are we talking about when we look at data — particularly when companies are using it. It’s not just our address and email.
 It’s thousands of data points building a sophisticated picture of your likes and dislikes. Initially designed so you can be sold to effectively. It feeds an algorithm that constantly shows you things you like, building a wall around you, isolating from anything it feels you won’t like — and subconsciously or not feeding all of our cognitive biases.

We may be comfortable with people having information like our email address — but how about what we look like? Whether we’re happy or sad — or our political allegiances.

The whole issue of Russian bot farms is about them using this data to manipulate us.

We know about cognitive bias — but what do we do when people feed those biases to manipulate us. This is propaganda on a monumental and unprecedented scale. 
 It’s not using some extra sophisticated technology- but the systems that marketers use every day. And companies like Facebook are profiting hugely. 
 They make money whether you’re being targeted for a pair of shoes or to vote against your interests in asymmetric cyber warfare.

The governments of the world are woefully unprepared to combat any of this — their answer is to remove the flimsy protections we have like end to end encryption — to aid their actions against terrorists, foreign states and criminals. 
 This isn’t about them being playing another ball game — there not even playing the same sport.

What can governments do then — well we need regulation and much tougher enforcement. 
 It’s almost impossible to know what would work but we need to treat this as an international crisis with global action — you can’t combat this on a national level with global companies. 
 An international body to guarantee people’s data, and the ability to see who can access it and why — and dramatic powers to shut down companies that flout the rules. 
 We need to be better educated on what free means when using a product or service — and learn about the true value of our data and the real human and societal cost of what that means.

In the meantime… Research. Target. Plan. Execute. Learn. Do it again.

Dan Price

Dan Price

Founder of Useful Social. Loves Everton, Lego and Food.
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