Let's learn from the bad guys and 'useful idiots': lessons from the dark web
A view from Sarah Golding

Let's learn from the bad guys and 'useful idiots': lessons from the dark web

The dark side of the web holds some illuminating lessons for the industry, Sarah Golding, president of the IPA, says.

It has been said that the devil has all the best tunes. I have certainly started to think that this might be the case when it comes to creating magic with the machines. At two recent IPA events, we heard from speakers thoroughly versed in the dark side of the web. It’s a scary place: they told us stories of terrorists, anarchists and post-humanists. 

As I was listening to them, I was horrified by the nature of the people involved, but at the same time stunned by how effective they are in the use of modern media to achieve their aims and share their messages. In one case, we heard about a terror organisation that was able to radicalise people in the UK in just three months – let’s be honest, we can’t even get someone to switch their bank account in that time. So, I found myself wondering what marketers can learn from the less noble, but seemingly hugely skilled, proponents of the darker arts.  

Maybe we are too limited in the emotions we use – heartfelt seems less effective than heartless

Let’s start with the current poster boy of bad online marketing behaviour, Cambridge Analytica, and its client, President Trump. I, for one, have little doubt about the pivotal part Cambridge Analytica played in tipping a few key swing states in Trump’s favour. 

So, what can we learn from it? Well, Cambridge Analytica truly understood the concept of clickbait. Put simply, if Facebook’s model thinks your ad is 10 times more likely to engage a user than another company’s ad, then your effective bid at auction is considered 10 times higher than a company willing to pay the same dollar amount. And with Trump’s provocative concepts driving social buzz, he received a big boost from the model. 

The lesson for marketers is clear: it’s time to get more punchy, time to polarise and time to push the conversation, because the machines love it. 

But we can look way beyond just former Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix and his crew to learn a few bigger and broader lessons from the real bad boys of marketing with the machines.

Next up is a classic truth of marketing no matter what you’re selling: emotion works. In the case of the baddies, that emotion tends to be shock, anger and fear. But when done well, it drives online engagement, which multiplies the virality and, again, "games" the algorithms. As marketers we are masters of emotional comms, but maybe we are being too limited in the emotions we use, because heartfelt seems to be somewhat less effective than heartless.

Another area where the marketers and the mayhem masters overlap is the combination of channels they use, including broadcast. Trump built his brand on TV via a decade of The Apprentice; the Brexit campaign grew on the back of years of anti-European Union national press coverage; Isis led news report after news report with gruesome beheadings and child terrorists in training. The bad boys know that traditional media amplifies the impact of their performance media and ensure both work firmly together. 

It’s time to get more punchy, time to polarise and time to push the conversation

Then there are the influencers. All too often marketers look for the best-connected, brand-enhancing and most-respected influencers to drink their beverage or drive their car. And yet an audience I have never heard mention of in a marketing context is the most important group on the dark side of the net – the "useful idiots". 

The term, apparently coined by Lenin, defines a useful idiot as a person perceived to be a propagandist for a cause, the goals of which they are not fully aware. During the 2016 US presidential election the latter-day Russians proved to be masters of using these influencers. According to The Washington Post, they used Facebook groups, such as "Being Patriotic", to organise "March for Trump" and "Down with Hillary" rallies in New York, "Florida Goes Trump" rallies in Florida and "Miners for Trump" rallies in Pennsylvania. 

Using Twitter they promoted Trump-friendly hashtags (#MAGA, #Hillary4Prison) and created pro-Trump accounts ("Trumpsters United"). And to whip up anti-Muslim fervour to Trump’s benefit, they created a Facebook group called "United Muslims of America" and promoted a rally called "Support Hillary. Save American Muslims". 

As marketers, how often have we created false accounts for "Argos Shoppers United" or "Call Centre Workers for PG Tips"? Sounds crazy, but it clearly works. 

Looking more strategically, these guys don’t do all this stuff randomly. They have a very clear purpose and a very clear narrative. Again, this is "marketing 101" but it’s one "lore" the criminals are not going to break. 

So, Russian cyber interference has a very clear purpose – to dismantle (Western liberal) democracy; Isis is unashamed in its mission to establish the new caliphate; while Vote Leave put its purpose right there in its name. How many brands have as clear an intention or ambition? We all talk a lot about purposes and missions, but very rarely do we weaponise our brand onions with quite the same zeal. 

And what about their media plans, what can we learn there? Well it seems your advanced rogue state likes to mix "always on" with intense pulses of activity. The Russians favour an always-on message around social divide, and then pulse activity across political smears and financial/corporate wrongdoings. It’s a tried-and-tested laydown and many brands are turning to it these days, too.

And lastly, the wrongdoers like to use all the key platforms in ways relevant to each. It’s not just about Facebook and Twitter. A congressional committee probing Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election is also looking at Reddit and 4Chan as potential tools of clandestine activity. Reddit is particularly useful for market research. Before you commit to a particularly shocking meme, you can always test it out there, because, unlike Facebook, Reddit’s groups are open and accessible to anyone, even users who don’t have accounts. And, unlike Twitter, the content and conversations are neatly organised and can be arranged by popularity or time, which helps with the analysis. 

So, there we are. A few top tips from some of the lowest people on the planet. Of course, their messages are full of lies and often appalling, but their methods aren’t. Their methods are smart: they are tested, optimised and refined. They are the true hidden persuaders of our age, and while we might deplore them, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. 

In fact, it’s vital that we do, not just as marketers wanting to sharpen our skills within the boundaries of the law, but also as governments wanting to combat the spread of hate around the world. 

And I’ll leave you with this thought: the bad guys are simply using tools originally designed for the likes of Bed Bath & Beyond. I suggest it’s time we took them back.