Government advertising is dangerous

There’s been some fanfare in the Maltese national media lately about the government’s usage of social media adverts. It seems everyone is using social media these days, but I think there should be additional controls for governmental advertising.

I

Malta Today reported on social media advertising in the island state in November 2017. The report is based on a parliamentary question in the island’s legislative chamber.

The government spent EUR 2.5 million over the past 5 years. Compared to recent government spending statistics (EUR 370 billion), this is infinitesimally small. Cost is not the issue here.

The Office of the Prime Minister spent 20% of that EUR 2.5 million itself, albeit over the 5 year period. The Malta Tourism Authority is the biggest spender, swallowing up to 52% of the total amount.

Everyone’s use of social media is increasing in all industries, so this is hardly  unexpected. But should government usage of social media increase?

But should government usage of social media advertising increase?

II

Let’s take Facebook as an example but what I’m about to write applies to any social media network.

I’ve also written about the dangers of anonymity online.

Facebook is the largest one out there.

In 2012, Facebook hit 1 billion users. 55% of those users logged in every day. By 2017, those numbers changed to 2 billion and 66% respectively. It has a user base growing at 17% a year.3 No company or service has ever grown that quickly in history.

Ever.

Mark Zuckerberg launched the site while he was studying at Harvard. Few people know he was studying psychology at the time. This came in useful; the social dynamics of popularity and status are the main drivers behind Facebook usage.

Facebook’s popularity started attracting attention.

Peter Thiel was Facebook’s first external investor when he handed over half a million dollars to them. This was not just a gamble. Thiel majored in philosophy and was interested in French philosopher Rene Girard‘s work. Girard’s big idea is “mimetic desire”, i.e., once we have the basics in life, we look at what others are doing or wanting, and we copy them. Thiel summarises this eloquently:

“Imitation is at the root of all behaviour. Social media proved to be more important than it looked because it’s about our natures”.

Facebook is the most popular tool the human race has to let it see what others are doing.

And to let us copy them.

But so what? What has this got to do with Maltese government spending? Shouldn’t the government communicate its message on a platform its citizens are on?

III

Facebook’s customers are not its users, as is commonly believed, but its advertisers. It segments users as precisely as possible so advertisers can pitch things to them. Facebook cares enough to make sure I get shown, say, adverts for the latest Star Wars movie. But it doesn’t care enough to check if the advert is genuine.

Enter the concept of fake news.

Pre-2000, news items were debated in public. If any political party said something outrageous, the opposition would tear the message to shreds. The messenger would be openly challenged. They could file slander or libel suits. Eventually, lies can move out of the public consciousness because of the possibility of rebuttal.

This is not the case on social media.

Let’s say I wanted to create a misogynistic advert bad mouthing an opponent. I intentionally target people who are also misogynists so they will see my advert.

On social media, you never know if lies are in circulation

But you – will you see it?

If Facebook doesn’t label you as a misogynist you will never see the advert. Which means you will never know I am a misogynist and that I pay money to spread that sort of message. If you’re my opponent, you don’t even have the opportunity to defend yourself.

In short, if you’re not part of a demographic that Facebook serves lies to, you may never know these lies were in circulation.

How can these lies be openly debated or rebutted in such a situation?

IV

And so we turn to the Maltese government.

All those adverts it takes out can be precisely targeted. They can highlight and take advantage of existing social and political divisions on the island.

And they will be completely unnoticeable.

Imagine if the government placed a huge billboard placed on one of the main thoroughfares screaming “Liar!” next to a picture of one of the opposition MPs. The matter would be in the news, chat shows would discuss it, Parliament would debate it. Maybe the target of this campaign would open a court case about it.

And we would all know about it.

But if an advert starts popping up on social media screaming “Liar!” next to the face of one of the opposition MPs, what will happen?

The government can target an advert to a specific demographic. (For example: male, 18-35, living in a specific part of the island, employed, Labour Party supporter, not interested in football, heavy Facebook user, doesn’t travel much, etc.)

We’ve already seen instances where social media usage blurs the lines between party and government, and adverts on Facebook are being used to push the Labour Party’s propaganda aims.

When will society scrutinise this message?

V

During the US election in 2016, Russian propagandists spent USD 100 000 (EUR 85 000) on Facebook advertising. The Maltese government spends that in 2 months.

Shouldn’t we know what adverts it’s pushing out?

If we can’t scrutinise, they shouldn’t advertise.

Should we scrutinise governmental advertising or not? Join the conversation below.

References

  1. How the Maltese government spent over €2.5 million in social media ads; Vella, Matthew; Malta Today; 2017-11-07
  2. Government spending in Europe; TradingEconomics.com; (As retrieved 2018-02-22)
  3. Facebook is watching you; Lanchester, John; The Sunday Times; 2017-10-29
  4. You are the product; Lanchester, John; London Review of Books; 2017-08-17
  5. Need a job? ‘Support Joseph Muscat as Prime Minister’; The Shift News; 2018-02-18

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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