Can brands be the moral guardians of the internet?

Over the past 20 years, the ethics of the internet have been put to one side, on the basis that tech businesses are merely 'giving the people what they want' - but it is time for change.

Can brands be the moral guardians of the internet?

It’s always made me chuckle that the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity takes place every summer on the French Riviera after the Palme d’Or and the, perhaps less-well-known, Hot d’Or, which offers gongs for such creative achievements as Best Double Penetration. This, you might think, puts advertising at the bottom of a sliding scale of morality. 

It’s not without reason that commentators since the beginnings of capitalism have asked questions of us image-makers who seek to manipulate purchase decisions by gaming the wiring of the hunter-gatherer brain. 

Indeed, most aspects of business and culture have been subject to enquiry and subsequent legislation to hold in check the natural urges of groups of humans to control other groups for advantage. A state of play that meant giving consumers exactly what they wanted was never really possible for brands. Until now. 

Anathema to disruption 

As a phrase, "The ethics of the internet" seems odd; backward-looking even. It is anathema to the rhetoric of disruption, which has cast the evolution of technology as one of unstoppable progress. Somehow, in the past 20 years we’ve convinced ourselves that the internet, and the tech businesses that power it, have no need for moral governance because they are fuelled by the interactions of the people. Powered by the people, for the people, the cult of the Silicon Valley superbrand was born.  

‘Connectivity, like electricity before it, has become a utility – the air we breathe and the screens we swipe’

Perhaps the ugliest word in the English language grew from this era – "democratisation", which, very loosely, appears to mean everyone can have a go at anything. It is the idea that "information wants to be free" and that, once liberated from editorial control and the ownership of its originators, it will inexorably push forward progress and liberty for all. 

Yet, instead of this hoped-for utopia, the internet we have today is the most powerful tool ever invented to game the primitive wiring of our brains. Connectivity, like electricity before it, has become a utility – the air we breathe and the screens we swipe. In our hyper-networked world, it has become an end in itself.

Our dopamine-reward path has been successfully hijacked largely by three companies: Google, Facebook and Amazon. Our attention is all too often on a customer journey pointed at the purchase of things we probably don’t need – and it feels good. We love Google, Facebook and Amazon services, even when, sometimes, we know they’re not doing us much good. 

The myth of freedom

In the late 1990s, cyberspace promised freedom from tyranny. In 2017, it has given us Donald Trump and Brexit, and put an obscure computer programmer called Robert Mercer and an ex-KGB operative called Vladimir Putin at the top of a global system of population control. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The lack of moral oversight we are currently reeling from as a global society, is simply a function of the speed with which these systems have appeared, gained dominance and been manipulated. We’ve seen it before with railway booms and cable TV, though never at this pace. No new technology, utility or service has been adopted so widely or as quickly as Facebook.

Perhaps the ugliest word in the English language grew from this era – "democratisation"

Such is the velocity of this change that advertisers, consumers and society at large simply cannot adequately interpret it. Language itself can’t keep up. The Sami people of Lapland have as many as 300 words for snow and snow-related phenomena, we have only one for data, and yet we find ourselves in a blizzard of the stuff. 

One word to cover everything from our purchase habits, to the school run and how likely crop failure is in central Sudan. All data are not created equal, but the machines that process them can’t see the distinction.

An ethical void

If language is failing us so badly, ethics don’t stand a chance. Philosophical enquiry has always come up against language in its desire to pin down behaviour and guide us toward the society its adherents believe to be best. Without the words to describe what we are experiencing, wider society is left in the control of the computer code that governs the interfaces in which we spend most of our time. And because those interfaces have now been optimised so effectively, when we use applications and websites online, we are essentially on an addictive, dopamine-spiked journey toward a purchase. We are losing our ability to do anything but consume.  

Moving out from the middle ground

With our minds so profoundly distracted by this system, we are also losing our ability to question it. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Homo Deus:  "In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the 21st century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information." He goes on to explain: "In ancient times, having power meant having access to data. Today, having power means knowing what to ignore."

Why is this a bad thing for the modern day Mad Men and Women? Why would advertising and marketing professionals care? Surely a system that is pointing everyone who has a phone at a purchase is the dream endpoint of this industry?  

A fog is created around important issues, such that the distracted minds of a technologically hooked populous cannot respond. Just read any Trump speech for evidence

On the contrary, there’s so much about the emerging "technocene" era that is damaging to the type of capitalism that advertising promotes. Big brands benefit from the centre ground. If you’re Coca-Cola, you want to teach the world to sing, because then everybody will buy a Coke. 

The leading FMCG businesses make most of their money from middle- and low-income families. Unilever, by introducing affordable packet sizes of its Lifebuoy soap brand, has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, given the poorest people access to cleanliness, and therefore employment, and made a lot of money. Purpose and profit have neatly aligned. 

But as the middle class contracts in the West, big brands will increasingly look to the developing world where technology promises to lift millions out of abject poverty. 

Facebook has already signed up almost half the countries in Africa – a combined population of 635 million – to its free internet service. It is a move that internet freedom advocates have argued is a thinly veiled marketing ploy. However, in the West, on its current trajectory, it seems the status quo online, dominated overwhelmingly by a handful of players, is damaging our societies. 

With no moral framework to question the consequences (intentional or not) of such dominance, we have suddenly woken up to a world where strong men manipulate ill-informed populations, and our freedoms become eroded. 

The defining characteristic of the modern rise of the alt-right, the election of Trump, the dominance of Putin and the chaos of Brexit, is the collapse of linguistic meaning. A fog is created around important issues, such that the distracted minds of a technologically hooked populous cannot respond. Just read any Trump speech for evidence.

It’s also probably fair to say the efficiency-drive of most tech businesses puts a bigger downward pressure on wages than immigration. As incomes flatline, the quality of life for workers in the West has collapsed over the past two decades. This is one of the key drivers behind Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right party Alternative for Germany. Obviously, these issues are complex. However, when wage-stagnation hits, populations will look for someone to blame and access to millions of other angry people online; it’s easier than ever for malevolent forces to manipulate the times. 

An ad-funded malaise 

If information needs to be entirely free on the internet, it’ll be ad-funded, and ad-funded in the cheapest, most automated way. An approach that prioritises quantity over quality and contributes to the fog of diminished meaning online. It creates a space where extreme agendas flourish. Unchecked newsfeeds connect information to the dopamine-reward system, encouraging us to fuel our biases. With the extreme right wing more willing to exploit this system, the liberal centre view has suffered. 

So if it’s an, arguably, flawed ad model that has got us here, is there more we as an industry can do to fix the problem? Or, at the very least, can we recognise our contribution to it?

For more than 100 years, advertising and the commercial interests it represents have been subject to moral scrutiny. It’s time to bring powerful systems of online media into the same spotlight, or we risk a slide into a dystopian world with an ever-shrinking market for big brands to address. 

There are signs of a willingness to question the motivations of the "disruptors". Uber’s recent travails in London have resulted in Transport for London demanding it adhere to the same rules as the rest of the market on employee and passenger protection. What was interesting about the furore was the anger of Uber’s customers who couldn’t see past the cheap cab ride to the broader impact on society. So it’s far from clear that consumers will tend toward the more ethical choice if the price isn’t right. 

This isn’t new. The role for elected bodies is to undertake the moral enquiry necessary to preserve a free society. Moreover, in the case of Uber, the result is likely to be a better brand, and possibly one that, in the future, it’s OK to love. 

The age of activism

Moral responsibility doesn’t end with institutions, and social media has ushered in a new era of digital activism. "Stop funding hate", which launched in Christmas 2016, produced a film that contrasted the values of the "cry and buy" festive ads with the editorial tone of newspapers. 

The campaign targeted news brands including the Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Mail. (MailOnline is the most shared news source on Facebook.) It placed brands in the firing line and marketers under pressure, and garnered results and attention. Lego, for example, ended a promotion it had run in the Daily Mail. So, when it comes to "old media", it seems possible to exert pressure through adspend.  

Some of the smartest kids are being sucked out of society to do stupid apps on iPads with their girlfriends and boyfriends

Yet when the traditional papers run headlines castigating Google for allowing AdWords to support Isis on YouTube, it’s worth asking whether there’s a vested interest at work. Clearly, the papers have lost out to Google. This puts a tricky moral conundrum at the heart of the media industry. The press is supposed to talk truth to power, and, to some extent, hold big businesses to account. Yet its business model is so beaten by technology that it can’t effectively play that role. 

Self-regulation doesn’t appear to be working. Facebook claims it’s "just a platform", so can’t be held responsible for the content it distributes. This has always rung a little hollow when you know it can block images of works of art and breastfeeding mothers, for fear of damaging revenues in religious countries, but can’t be effective at removing fake news. 

Recent measures, intended to police who is buying political ads, speak to the problem, but fail fully to address it. And why would they? Facebook is an incredible business, with probably the first product in history to appeal and be addictive to almost everyone. 

Being owned by shareholders, Facebook cannot really act against its own financial interest. External pressures are needed to nudge it to a place that, doubtless, many of its own employees and its founders would prefer.

Perhaps the task, then, falls to advertisers themselves to put appropriate pressure in place to make sure the internet operates in parallel with the values they purport to defend in their own codes of practice. 

Historically, the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial has been sacrosanct. But if that editorial is described as hate speech by the UN, can an advertiser that employs and sells to a diverse group afford not to act? Or, if those ads work, do moral questions take a back seat? 

Beyond winner takes all

The internet has reached maturity now. Disruptive start-ups have shaken the world; and, in so many ways, for the better. But with the internet as it currently stands, the winner takes all, and when you win in a global network, your dominance can be a challenge to a diversity of opportunity and even the very structure of our societies. 

Despite the cult of the digital entrepreneur, the sad characteristic of the modern digital leaders is that so many, despite an apparent belief in doing good, are simply focused on their own wealth creation. 

In a conference about blockchain in 2015, Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of MIT’s Media Lab, bemoaned the fact that so many smart kids graduating from MIT fail to tackle the world’s big problems, focusing on get-rich-quick schemes instead. 

"Some of the smartest kids are being sucked out of society to do stupid apps on iPads with their girlfriends and boyfriends," he said.

Even blockchain itself, with its inherent distribution of power on a network to multiple nodes, looks, so far, as if it’s suffering from the same moral degeneracy as the good old internet. Bitcoin, the first currency ever that isn’t underwritten by a state or King, appears not to be revolutionising transactions. Instead, it’s another get-rich scheme for speculators. 

There is hope, though. The money being made by those early experimenters is a potential source of funds for the creation of something new, not entirely funded by banks and venture capitalists. 

Any kind of comprehensive moral governance of the internet is impossible. But, as we’ve seen, public institutions can play an important role, as TfL appears to have done with Uber. Beyond that, it’s crucial that those of us who work in the modern media question its infrastructure. 

The argument that our dopamine-driven digital landscape is simply giving consumers what they want is no longer fit for purpose. Without adspend, Google, Facebook and the entire digital media landscape don’t exist. If we believe ethics are important for the long-term success of our companies and society at large, it’s incumbent on all of us to question how our money is spent.