March 27, 2018

Is it still ethical to advertise on Facebook?

Since the summer of 2016, a few of us at Franklin Street have been keeping an eye on the ethics of social media. Back then, news nerds like me continued to see small blurbs in the back pages of news sites about social media manipulation as part of the “new strategies” being revealed in the now infamous 2016 election cycle.

For many Americans, the drama of the 2016 election cycle really took hold that summer and fall as Trump sealed the GOP nomination, the Access Hollywood tape was released and the DNC emails followed…all culminating in the shocking plot twist of one of the biggest upsets in our presidential election history.

But, that fateful summer is really when MOST of us starting paying attention—the digital side of the story actually started months, if not years before. As we have uncovered through both Special Counsel Mueller’s indictments and some excellent journalism, we know social media (specifically Facebook) was laying the foundation (whether wittingly or not) for an astounding level of social discord that would contribute to rocking the very foundations of what we hold sacred as a democracy.

That’s because many months before, professional trolls were testing the language and imagery (just as we in marketing A/B test on social media) that would sow the seeds of misinformation and bigotry. Troll farms and firms like Cambridge Analytica were sharpening the sword of Facebook and readying it to slash away at common decency.

The technology or phenomenon of social media is in its infant stages. We don’t truly know what we are clutching in our hands when we tap away at our phones.

In the early years of the medium, many of us saw nothing but promise. This amazingly simple idea enabled people separated by oceans to connect with similar tribes of desire, even though they were so different by nationality (like when a model airplane enthusiast in Egypt starts a conversation with another hobbyist in Iowa). This idea was simply exciting. Our enthusiasm about the possibility clouded our pragmatism. There is a fine line between optimism and naiveté.

In the early years, the cheerleaders of social media pointed to world events like the Arab Spring to demonstrate the power of Facebook. Finally, these oppressed people could congeal in one place and empathize with each other about living under a dictatorship.

Much like the printing press in the American Revolution, platforms like Facebook were touted as the harbinger of change.

But Facebook can’t take a city.

That’s a big takeaway from social media’s first major real world test. From Iran to Egypt, well-paid goons in tanks crushed every single rebellion inspired by the Arab Spring. You can hash tag all you like, but no matter how many hipsters in trendy glasses you find on YouTube…cold steel still makes reality.

2016 taught us that social media can weaponize discontent. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, we can all agree the combo of our last election and social media has destroyed relationships.

As the details of the role of social media in the election continue to unfold, the backlash my colleagues and I saw coming was inevitable as the tide that comes every night to Virginia Beach.

The inevitable truth is social media takes our desires and monetizes them. That’s their commercial DNA. And desires can be extremely destructive.

Our worst desires makes us have affairs. It’s why we are addicted. It’s why we are obese. It’s why we betray. It’s why we kill.

As healthcare providers, the time is coming for us to ask ourselves, is it ethical to advertise on a platform that weaponizes our mental health?

It’s a common cultural joke that Facebook is the commerical for how we want our lives to be perceived. It’s the digital personificaiton of being two-faced.

Should we contribute money to a platform that contributed to the undermining of our democracy? Politics aside, what about study after study that shows social media use contributes greatly to many indicators of unhappiness? As our society continues to focus on the value of mental health, how can we continue to help prop up such a destructive force to mental health and still call ourselves a health organization…all with a straight face?

Take a breath.

Am I advocating that you stop advertising on social media?

Not yet. I am playing Devil’s Advocate.

And I do think we need to start asking the question.

In an industry that (rightly) obsesses about privacy through regulations such as HIPPA, how do we justify supporting organizations that weaponize our personal data?

Media scholars might be tempted to argue that every new medium has its early naysayers. Television rotted the brain. Rock and roll made us promiscuous. And so on.

But these mediums were mostly one-way traffic. It’s truly comparing apples to oranges. Beyond a bare bones sampling of a metric like Nielson Ratings, TV had no way of weaponizing your preferences. They knew people loved a certain show because of the numbers. But they didn’t know why and they sure as hell couldn’t use it to make you hate Uncle Joe.

With new technology comes responsibility. And while I’m not advocating you quit advertising on social media, we need to start holding these platforms to a much higher standard.

The bottom line is there are plenty of indicators that social media may not be good for you. And that is a problem for health care providers. And it may only get bigger. People told us we were crazy when we warned of a backlash.

Facebook has now lost $80 billion in stock since their latest data scandal. Thought leaders (read “All the Cool Kids”) like Elon Musk have already had their companies quit the platform. Regulation is coming. And it is long overdue. We need to pay more attention to these platforms and consider the social ramifications of what we are supporting through our marketing dollars.

We are healthcare. It’s time to start caring about the health of our society—and caring means actions…not words or spin. Otherwise, how can people really trust us if we are just another company trying to use desires to pump dollars out of wallets?

We are all accountable for reaching patients and getting them to choose us. That makes social media a vital tool. But if it is vital, shouldn’t we be scrutinizing these platforms even more?

Take a hard look at what, when and how much you are doing on social media. It’s easy to be on the right side of bandwagons and trendy gurus in the moment, but you sure don’t want your brand to be on the wrong side of history tomorrow.