Are people really influenced by advertising

Targeted Advertising on Facebook: Influence, Manipulation or Smart Marketing?

At the end of 2018, sales of parsnips increased significantly in Eeklo, Belgium. The reason is food for thought: it can be traced back to targeted advertising on Facebook. With just a few clicks, every advertiser can tell the social network exactly who of the almost 1.5 billion global users their ad should reach. The parsnip advertising targeted the town of Eeklo in East Flanders, which has a population of around 21,000. To be more precise: The advertising was aimed at women who were interested in the program “Daily Expenses” on the public broadcaster VRT and at the same time interested in healthy eating.

The initiators of the action were the makers of the Belgian program “Facebook en ik” (Facebook and me). They wanted to demonstrate the effects of the social media platform on user privacy. They also wanted to try out whether it is possible to influence people with advertising. The ads they ran were fake. On the basis of pseudoscientific explanations, they emphasized the extraordinary effect of parsnips for a slim figure. The idea worked: in three local supermarkets in the city, sales of root vegetables rose by 16, 300 and 436 percent, respectively.

This rather harmless example shows that people can be influenced via Facebook. In principle, this is not a new finding. But at the same time the question arises: How far could one go? Could parsnip growers lie to their potential customers? Certainly you can apologize in retrospect after it emerges that data protection rules have been broken. Just like Google did in the current scandal. The aftertaste remains.

When is it manipulation?

Is there a mistake in targeting health claims ads? Isn't it just marketing? Where is the limit? When does the targeted adaptation of advertising change to manipulation?

Communication scientist Judith Möller from the University of Amsterdam is currently working on her doctoral thesis on personalized communication. She stresses that any personal information that is collected about us is more likely to be tampered with: “See Cambridge Analytica [data analytics companies) who have tried to identify the personality traits of individuals with personal information. With this they predicted the kind of messages that could be used to convince people. We have seen the impact this has had on England and the United States, we should all be concerned about that. "

Möller has no doubt that people are influenced. But how this works exactly, science has - at least for the time being - no answers. “Political advertising alone does not convince people. The process is much more complex. It depends on the person, the situation and the context in which they receive a message. "

The scientist herself prefers to get information in the morning. It is more likely to accept information if it is supported by a large number of statistics. “That's how it works for me,” explains Möller, “but it's different for everyone. And that's only a small part of the process. "

Convince versus manipulate

With a political message, color becomes known. You can agree or disagree with it and argue why you disagree. According to Bart Engelen, philosophy lecturer at Tilburg University, it becomes problematic when the political message leaves out rational thinking: “Manipulation skips rational skills by using certain colors or images to which our brains are known to react. It has nothing to do with arguments anymore. Also, people often don't know that it is happening, it happens secretly behind their backs. In a democracy in particular, this is something dangerous, one is sent in one direction without even realizing it. It becomes completely reprehensible when someone deliberately disseminates false information in order to achieve his goal. "

The enormous amount of personal data that Facebook or companies like Cambridge Analytics use leads Engelen to believe that people are not adequately protected from manipulation. “In real life, I can try and push all sorts of buttons on my girlfriend to make her do what I want - it won't go well aside from the fact that I would be a terrible partner. Online ads are designed so that if it doesn't work, they just keep trying until the right "button" is found. All of this is due to the amount of personal data companies have. The public is not really aware of what is being done with the data. "

Help from IT

According to Claude Castelluccia, head of the data protection group at the French research institute Inria for Computer Science and Automation, computer science can help here. Castelluccia worked as a security expert for about twenty years. Together with other scientists, he developed a model that makes the world of online advertising transparent for Internet users. So you can see which advertisers have an overview of their data. And they can choose to keep an eye on everything. “These tools give you more insight and knowledge. It's a good weapon against tampering, but it doesn't solve the problem, ”said Castelluccia. Because he, too, sees enough gray areas on the Internet. In addition to the fact that internet users are constantly exposed to advertising and bait, they are also specifically asked to accept something they don't really want. Castelluccia said: “Look what Instagram is doing: You get two options in the privacy settings. Yes or no, now. No is not listed. A message like this comes back every time until you go crazy and click "yes" to get rid of it. That is borderline, but is it real manipulation? "

According to Fanny Hidvegi of Acces Now, an organization that defends the digital rights of people around the world, the child has been called by the wrong name recently. Together with 52 other experts, Hidvegi advises the European Union on the topics of rules, laws and ethical issues in the implementation of artificial intelligence. “To really come to a good solution, you have to be very clear about what the problem is. So we have to stop using the term fake news. Research shows that people have different ideas about what that means. Some say bad journalism is fake news, others call satire it. However, paid journalism, advertising and information that is incorrect are also included in this investigation. We are now talking about disinformation at EU level. "

Code of Conduct

Last September, the European Union agreed with social networks, technology companies and advertisers on a code of conduct to combat disinformation. The first evaluation reports were published a few days ago. According to Hidvegi, these are good first steps. But large advertisers should also participate, because they are also part of this data ecosystem. "It also helps that people become aware of targeting, look at 'Who Targets me?", It gives you, the user, more insight into how targeting works, "advises Hidvegi.

Who Targets me? is a browser extension that uses Facebook usage to analyze the data based on which a political advertisement is viewed. The aim of the initiative is to give people an insight into how they are advised in a political campaign and what information the advertising is based on. Hidvegi advocates further such initiatives: "That makes people more alert to dangers."

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