The supreme irony of the Cambridge Analytica saga is that the company is being destroyed by its own techniques. There was nothing chief executive Alexander Nix could do or say to redeem himself once Channel 4’s undercover footage reached the virtual world. The very online networks and echo chambers that Mr. Nix is alleged to have exploited for his clients’ strategic advantage became the unforgiving arena for his undoing.
There are bound to be further aftershock revelations, perhaps some criminal prosecutions, and then an inevitable increase in the long-overdue regulation of the strategic communications industry.
Similarly, the social media giants will have to change fast or feel the commercial pressure as new-entrant platforms appear, offering more transparent, more ethical, online environments for people’s personal and professional conversations.
The line between robust and inappropriate campaigning will remain blurred in the heat of election battle because the techniques of the communicators will invariably move faster than public awareness and legislative constraints due to real world commercial imperatives: innovation drives success within any industry.
But despite the many alleged instances of undue voter influence by Cambridge Analytica in the past, the company was ultimately held to account by real people having real conversations and making their own decisions. That should be a cause of optimism. It was the sheer scale of the subsequent global online peer-to-peer conversation that did for Mr Nix. It shows the online environment remains an inherently democratic medium in which the power of genuine audience engagement and action remains as strong, if not stronger, than ever.
Global technologies may facilitate the untruth and the unaccountable, but, even in the virtual age, empathy remains the cornerstone of effective messaging. The science of empathy does not require the harvesting of personal data, blackmail or manipulation – it depends on the power of words expressed in an audience’s own language, picking up the verbal cues the audience throws out.
It was a lesson I learned during my time as a reservist within British Military Psychological Operations and working in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Psychological Operations cell. Our repeated misunderstandings of the local population and our many failed influence interventions were chastening.
We were no closer to beating the Afghan fighters than Alexander the Great in 330BC; we were fighting the same war of attrition and repeating the same historical cycle as every other invading force from Genghis Khan to the twentieth century Soviet Union.
As a direct result of my experiences in Afghanistan, I have spent the last decade trying to develop, test and demonstrate the power of words to create measurable behaviour change in any audience. Though we are saturated with visual messaging, the power of word-of-mouth remains the strongest form of endorsement for any idea. Language has the power to inspire, influence, unite and enfranchise people around higher order principles and values – let us call it ethical messaging.
Any audience can be understood purely in terms of its use of, and susceptibility to, language. You don’t need bogus personality tests to decode an audience – you need science-driven behavioural insight. That can be gleaned from a focus group just as easily as deploying Big Data. Qualitative insights and research collection methods allow you to observe particular cognitive, linguistic and behavioural indicators because they are more intimate than quantitative methods.
The most direct way to influence an audience over the long term is through a form of verbal communication. A politically-motivated fake news story is successful only if it manages to win over its target audience. To intervene and educate that audience with a counter-narrative can effectively neutralise your opponent’s verbal weapons system.
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Despite all the technological advances, and any number of algorithms, the future is human. The facts do end up making the difference – and remain the only cure for fake news. The online audience is gradually becoming more sensitive to the important distinction between being just informed and being well informed: the veracity of the facts, not just their emotional response to a message or situation.
I find this very reassuring. If the Cambridge Analytica saga has reminded our industry of anything, it is that we do still have real democracy – as illustrated by the very nature of the internet and our free press – and it is our responsibility to work with this wonderful reality, rather than against it. Dialogue will always overcome division.
Sven Hughes is founder and CEO of Verbalisation, a leading strategic communications company