Lightman is professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
Seven week ago now, I listened to President Biden's inaugural address with appreciation and hope. His message of unification was welcome after many years of divisive rhetoric and sowing seeds of mistrust and fear.
While I agree that we can unify this nation and work together toward common objectives, it will take time and require unconventional thinking. And it will come at a cost. The nation is highly polarized because of both radicalization, on both ends of the political spectrum, and the flow of disinformation. How our information is produced, shared and consumed is at the core of both problems.
What were once trusted sources of information have been supplanted by hyper-targeted and directed information flows through social media platforms. And those inadvertently foster echo chambers and sustain online communities that seek to reinforce their own political beliefs to the exclusion of divergent opinions.
We are also facing a veritable witches' brew of social stresses that have come to a boil the past year: racial tension, pandemic uncertainties and economic disparity. The new administration has many ambitious ideas for calming the storm. Many of Biden's proposals are acutely needed but fraught with challenges — not just in getting them through Congress, but in getting them embraced or at least accepted across a divided nation.
Based on a career working on digital marketing and analytics campaigns with dozens of organizations, here are seven tenets of marketing that Biden and his allies could adopt and thereby promote greater probability of success.
People act irrationally. And they do so especially under duress. Whether a patient sitting in a doctor's office, a student getting ready for an exam or a voter waiting for election results, stressful times result in irrational actions and decisions. Considering this is key when trying to develop and implement policies. It is also critical in terms of understanding communication and engagement.
Complex issues must be simplified. That's the only way to ensure widespread understanding. Many policies today are intermingled with data and have far-reaching and multifaceted implications — economically, technically, socially and politically. Simplifying and communicating to a variety of different stakeholders is a skill that needs to be taught and put into practice. People are bombarded with a slew of information; they need to cognitively process and comprehend the desired messaging in a manner that makes sense.
Motivation and persuasion are different. One size does not fit all. There are vastly different motivations (both extrinsic and intrinsic) that could help define a value proposition in order to develop the right persuasive arguments. Knowing how they differ across targeted segments is vitally important to engagement..
Trust is a prerequisite. Re-establishing trust in our government and our mechanism of governing has to happen before the sale. We are suffering from a collective lack of trust in our bedrock institutions. The many reasons include societal disruption, lack of consumer relevance and absence of transparency. And, of course, the previous president conditioned the public not to trust even the very government he headed.
There are many ways to measure and assess trust. This can serve as a baseline to understand changes within different target audiences. In order to rebuild trust, actions speak louder than words. But this takes time, especially when it comes to sweeping policy changes, so interim measures associated with engagement, public input and continuous transparency are needed.
We are all on the spectrum. Everyone exists in a unique place along a spectrum of attitudinal profiles. At one end are people who believe a government official's role is to have strong opinions and take bold action. At the other end are people who abhor politicians and would rather watch problems burn than engage in a discussion to find commonality. A majority of people exist somewhere in the middle.
Identifying the groups at the poles is critical, so leaders do not waste their effort trying to engage those groups for naught. Given our highly polarized society, with groups of citizens who feel disenfranchised to an extent where they see no common ground, leaders must instead focus time and energy on segments of society that will at least be willing to engage.
Big data helps a lot. Segmenting individuals has gotten a bit of negative press due to the increased use of personal data to monetize activities through advertising. The federal government has quite a bit of transactional data and demographic data associated with citizens. But what about psychographics — personality, values and attitudes? Social media platforms use these marketing characteristics to deliver targeted messaging, advertise products and services and make recommendations for connecting to others.
The administration could benefit greatly from this type of data, because it could help with engaging different constituents. But any effort to collect it would be met with public hesitancy and criticism. Doing so could succeed only with complete transparency, a convincing value proposition for citizens — and their complete control over whatever information is shared.
Social media is the future. Historically, elected officials and policymakers have used direct engagement with constituents as their main venue for persuasion. A more effective approach could include creating a program of social media ambassadors, those who not only understand the details of legislative or regulatory changes but also have a sophisticated understanding of how to communicate with different groups. This is critical not only for engagement, but perhaps more importantly, agreement on what constitutes "ground truth."
These tenets are in no way mutually exclusive, Indeed, they need to be embraced concurrently. For example, you cannot rebuild trust without an understanding of how to engage, which is predicated on knowing more about the community with which you want to engage.
These are not trivial matters. Applying these precepts will involve considerable commitments of time and resources — and ample determination. But the effort ultimately can drive engagement, advocacy commonality and a boost in national unity.
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Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.
Dwight Eisenhower was one of the first politicians to use TV as a medium to spread his message to the American public.
In 1952, he met with Rosser Reeves, an American ad executive, to discuss how to use this relatively new medium. They created 20- to 30-second slots to run during prime-time, called "Eisenhower Answers America."
These ads helped usher in how political campaigns would use new broadcast media to campaign.
TV ads were also used in the campaigns of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon in the 1960s to shock viewers into going to the polls by catering to their fears of a world that might exist should their opponent win.
Over time, TV ads became more negative and critical of opponents' ideology and positions. For example, in the late 1980s, George Bush attacked Michael Dukakis on his prison furlough program giving weekend passes to convicted criminals. They used convicted felon Willie Horton to provide added emphasis and provoke fear-mongering.
To understand how effective their ads have been, TV advertisers use measures of reach and frequency of views. These measures are based on a general understanding of the type of viewers that might be watching a given channel, show and time slot.
However, it's hard to understand a given ad's effectiveness in driving voters, especially as modern TV audiences migrate to video on demand and other streaming platforms.
In other words, TV political advertising today might provide highly skewed results based on demographics. That's because the people who still watch live broadcast TV tend to be older than the average American.
With the advent of the web, political messaging went online. First, there were websites focusing on the campaign; then, videos on platforms like YouTube to show support for candidates; and now, political ads use social networks to campaign, create community and raise money.
Unlike TV, social networks offer the ability to hyper-target individuals by characteristics like geography, age and interests. They provide real-time measurable outcomes while rapidly disseminating political messages.
There is also the issue of cost. For example, a 30-second advertisement during the popular TV show "This is Us" cost about $434,000 last year. Facebook political ads can run for a fraction of that cost and be much more effective at reaching specific audiences, due to targeting.
With a plethora of data on what drives people to click, share or pledge money, modern-day political strategists can now understand what messages help reinforce their base and slowly percolate them into the consciousness of those who might be swayed.
Hyper-targeting and tailoring messaging for individual users can reinforce a person's deeply held beliefs. It also contributes to the spread of disinformation. This is a more fundamental issue than simply focusing on whether an ad is truthful or not.
One of the other big differences between social network political ads and TV ads is the impact of regulation.
TV is regulated by the FCC, while social networks are self-regulated.
The FCC was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt with the assumption that the airwaves belonged to the people. With the growing popularity of TV in the 1950s, the FCC regulated obscene and indecent material. It also set out to ensure there would be balance and truth associated with political messaging.
FCC regulations stipulate that broadcasters must allow any qualified candidates for political office the opportunity to purchase an equal amount of advertising time at the lowest unit charge.
In addition, regulations required transparency from political groups running the ads, which includes mentioning in the ad the name of the group purchasing the commercial time, and whether the advertisement is part of the candidate's campaign efforts, or if another political action group paid for the spot.
In contrast, without regulation, political ads on social networks can hide behind a cloak of secrecy. The FCC does provide guidance on advertising and disclaimers on any public communication made by a political committee – requiring, for example, statements such as "My name is [Candidate Name]. I am running for [office sought], and I approved this message."
However, Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, found that Google and Facebook often requested and received exemptions from requiring advertisers to include standard disclaimers.
Facebook recently decided on its own to require disclosures from advertisers when they purchased political ads, including the organization's government-issued identification number.
However, social networks like Facebook will have a difficult time providing complete transparency on why members might be seeing a particular political ad. Financially, it is not in their best interest to do so. This is reflected in the company's recent stance toward several petitions against posting false political ads on the network.
The future of political ads on social networks involves greater levels of checks and balances.
The networks' efforts on self-regulation and transparency are steps in the right direction.
In the Senate, Amy Klobuchar, Lindsey Graham and Mark Warner have proposed the Honest Ads Act, which would force online political advertising to adhere to the same stipulations as political ads on TV.
Independent media outlets, like ProPublica, are also taking steps to inform the public about the power of targeted political messaging.
However, the size and scope of the problem of political disinformation and hyper-targeting in social networks still needs to be addressed. This is simply too powerful for political campaigns and political operatives not to exploit. I fear that it will invariably lead to greater manipulation of public opinion in the runup to the 2020 campaign.
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