Can we learn from Cambridge Analytica’s use of data despite its unethical approach?

Cambridge Analytica: a household name these days, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Data can help campaigns reach unexpected places but don't leave your moral compass at the door, warns Shayoni Lynn
Data can help campaigns reach unexpected places but don't leave your moral compass at the door, warns Shayoni Lynn

Last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ruled that Cambridge Analytica did not directly misuse data to influence the outcomes of the EU referendum, thereby wrapping up a three-year investigation into the use of personal data in political campaigning.

And with that, we close this chapter and the associated media frenzy into the now defunct Cambridge Analytica.

And what a sensational story it was: psychometric profiling, swaying elections, ‘nudge’ on steroids – how could a company so quickly, so powerfully, create desired outcomes that could have such a tangible impact on the world as we know it?

But this is not so much a story of the 'misuse' of data as it is a story of how to effectively, efficiently and consistently use data to reach and engage audiences across multiple channels to deliver impact. The only difference? Ethics.

Cambridge Analytica used multiple tactics such as combined data sets, micro-targeting and behavioural targeting to deliver what it set out to do.

It did so with no ethical compass or consideration of what was best for its audiences, and with absolute disregard to the outcomes that its priming, framing and creation of confirmation bubbles would have.

But what it did, it did exceptionally well.

The personal data harvested and optimised by Cambridge Analytica (with the exception of the up to 87 million accounts accrued unethically by Dr Aleksandr Kogan) are available to all of us as digital marketers and advertisers.

As documentary The Social Dilemma has outlined recently, we need to wake up to the extent of personal data that is held about us online.

We make daily trade-offs to access information online, to connect to our digital world, and this information is there for the taking for anyone willing to pay.

Yet this data can act as a force for good.

Used ethically and with a moral compass, working towards improving the lives of our audiences, we can use this data – available at our fingertips – to connect with seldom-heard groups, reaching previously unengaged audiences on matters that are important to them.

And we can create content that resonates with local communities to bring together people with a shared purpose.

Behavioural tactics can lead to positive behaviour change; improving personal, professional and financial outcomes, bridging socio-economic gaps and saving lives.

A solid understanding of data and use of behavioural science tactics can make our messages more relevant to our audiences, and our calls to action more attractive.

However, like all science, the application is our responsibility.

This is a not a case study in the 'misuse' of data but a case study in the importance of ethics and the ethical dilemma we face as PR and communications practitioners every day.

It is up to us to ensure that we tread on the right side of history, protecting our audiences, and ensuring that we always nudge for good.

Shayoni Lynn is director and principal consultant at Lynn PR

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