Twitter data controversy hurts tech, marketers— and the user

'Neither technology nor data are good or bad: it’s how they are used that define their character.'
17 October 2019

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks during a press event at CES 2019. Source: AFP

The response of ad industry execs to the recent Twitter controversy betrays the frustration felt by anyone working in tech, advertising, and marketing who believes data can be used for good.

Twitter said last week that it had ‘inadvertently’ used data meant for security purposes, such as two-factor identification, to target people with ads. Email addresses and phone numbers, Twitter said, ‘may have been’ used to power the platform’s Tailored Audiences and Partner Audiences products.

Some speculate that Twitter knew more than it let on, but whatever the truth, it’s a blow for brands and agencies, as well as the tech community. Trust in organizations to use data ethically is falling, and it’s restoring that trust is an ongoing project.

But who can blame the user? There’s a fine line between the appropriate use of data, and propaganda-style misuse designed to dictate how individuals see the world. Platforms should be all about improving the user experience, but we know there have been a number of cases when companies have acted in a way that is not in the best interests of the user.

Data should be enabling

The reality is that the internet is, for the most part, a Wild West, with plenty of room for a black-hat element to operate. Those on the other side have to police themselves or risk being lumped in with more unsavory types.

Technology is enabling, and data should be enabling. Neither technology nor data are good or bad: it’s how they are used that define their character.

In principle, data should give organizations an opportunity to improve the experience of the user online. In fact, the emergence of data brought with it a wonderful opportunity for brands and agencies to save people from irrelevant content, save people time and save people from having a lousy, inconvenient overall experience. There are many, many companies that approach data in this way.

Most marketers, for instance, understand the value of loyalty. They have no interest in putting the short term before the long term, nor in irritating or upsetting users and wasting resources doing so. If they take an unethical approach to data, they risk destroying relationships by eroding the most important aspect of a relationship: trust.

But high-profile cases of data and privacy misuse, beginning with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, have justifiably generated resistance from users to any commercial activity involving data.

It’s in the interest of the tech community, too, to close the ‘empathy gap’ and show how online interaction does not have its own special set of rules.

It’s indisputable that tech is a force for good in the world, and unethical activity will stifle innovation and encourage a skeptical, or even cynical perspective among the wider public. If ill-feeling is allowed to develop, then opportunities for education, better health, job creation and more will be denied to many. And that would be a tragedy because, more than anything, the internet is empowering.

Ultimately, the onus is on the organization and the individual, not the end-user, to take responsibility for their activities online. There is conduct itself— using data in an ethical way— but there is also awareness through education.

We see the way some financial organizations have begun to create and distribute content designed to help their customers become more financially literate. Organizations that use data extensively can do the same so that users have their eyes open.

I’m optimistic that cases of data misuse and privacy violations will become less and less common. Naturally more challenges will arrive with the march of technology, and they will have to be addressed, too. But for the time being, organizations using data must hold themselves to a higher standard. And they must see their target audiences always as a collection of individuals, never just numbers on a screen.