The danger of “freedom of reach”

Learn more about data, how micro targeted messages in social media attack the freedom of speech and why every person should know and talk about it.

Imagine a full lecture hall – IHECS Brussels School for Journalism and Communication – 7 p.m. on Super Tuesday. Super Tuesday is the day when most US states hold primary elections for the Democratic candidates – so to say the most important day to find out who will compete against Trump. Why should I as social media strategist care and why should everybody care, at least a bit? Because US election candidates lead the way how to leverage social media for “their” good – or bad. “With social media, it is rather a freedom of reach than freedom of speech”, says Andras Baneth, European Office Managing Director of Public Affairs Council. As I summarise the Protagoras thinktank (IHECS) Masterclass lecture about Super Tuesday, let us dive deeper to find out what that means and what everybody can do to defend our freedom of speech.

Es wurde kein Alt-Text für dieses Bild angegeben.

The event was moderated by Nicolas Baygert, head of Protagoras thinktank (IHECS).

The challenge: micro targeted messages

“Social media and spread on social media are not foreseen in the US constitution”, states Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, BSIS Academic Director and US citizen. That accounts for buying YouTube channels, but also micro targeting. To illustrate how micro targeting works, Baneth points out that if Russians did send a jet towards the US, soon the US military would know how to counter the attack. But micro targeted messages like posts and ads with specific messages targeted to segmented audiences, “no one can account for them”, says Baneth. Also, the role of social media has changed. First, it was about “smart people with copywriting skills”, says Baneth, “but now rather data scientists decide”. Thousands of variations are tested like in texts altering just one word, or in images just one colour. To account for them hardly seems transparent – but why could that be “dangerous”?

The battle of ethics and emotion

At this point is where emotions come in. “You don’t need media owners anymore, but enough people to share your messages”, states Geert Stox, Head of Strategy at ICF Next. And, of course, Trump utilises any possible emotional trick to gain that reach. Ethics are rational, so not working in this sense. But to know the triggers and the buttons to push to gain a reaction does work. This taken to a test of not just thousands – in the case of Trumps campaigns over 14.000 ad sets – is, as I understood it, the freedom of speech, pimped by the power of data, taken to the reign of reach. So, how far is the “freedom of reach” a danger to the freedom of speech?

It it’s all about the message – the best message wins

“Trump ‘trained’ everyone”, says Allison E. Woodward, professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Many people now believe that CNN does fake news and they would not only stop watching news, but even stop giving interviews to journalists. So, not only is critical news not consumed, but also the information search is at risk. Why is this important to understand the danger of micro targeting in social media? Training people in believing that the alternative message is the right one sets the stage to be able to lie and achieving that nobody cares that it is a lie. Political solutions like the Green Deal, one of Von der Leyen’s most important issues, are very complex. But simple, single-minded messages win over complicated explanations. So how does messaging appear to work best? “Put a code in people’s mind”, says Stox. He names Trump’s “wall” as example of such a code, “it is not a solution, but it’s comprehensive”. The more you are politically moderate, the more complex it gets to explain, so the harder it gets to reach people in a simple way. And micro targeted messages are – as it says in the name – inseparable from the effect of the message as such.

If some use micro-targeting for “the bad” like misconceptions of lies, why can’t truthful communicators do micro-targeting for “the good”?

“Ethics are rational”, says Stox. And we learned that emotion beats reason, micro-targeting is a hard field for campaigners who strive for maintaining basic ethics. So what can we do? “First of all, we need to talk about it”, says Stox. But to be able to talk about it, we first need to know about it. And that is what you achieved today, by reading this article until the end. Now that you know that reach can beat reason, discuss on it. Why not start right now under this article. What do you think? Is the battle of reach versus reason lost or is there still hope? I say, we in Europe should start doing something instead of waiting until it is too late. I am very curious on your point of view.

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)


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