To say the least, it has been an eventful autumn. Even as the world was coming to terms with a Trump presidency in the United States, everyday life in India was thrown into turmoil by the demonetization of 85% of the nation’s currency in a war against corruption and black money. Like the vote for Brexit a few months ago, these events were unified by one feature: no one saw them coming.
Where did it all go wrong? The past decade has seen the steep rise and inexorable grip of data-driven decision making. Surely, that gave everyone – particularly the political and business strategists the arsenal to plot micro-strategies against competitors? Poring over books about the wisdom of crowds, raptly listening to gurus speak about the power of behavioral economics, everyone thought that they had the transformational tools for the 21st century. Only to realize that we had been living in a bubble of our own making.
Before the social media took over lives, people’s view of the world was defined by geography. But the online world deceptively shows us promise of open, accessible, pervasive knowledge. In reality, it is an online filter bubble, where algorithms show us links and stories which are based on the digital profile of our likes, dislikes, friends and purchases. It’s an effect that content creators and marketers capitalize on, even as we unknowingly contribute through our opinions, which become more and more rigid in the echo chamber.
It’s a characteristic of our lazy brain that turns complex ideas into easy-to-understand titbits. This is what social media pounces upon. Faced with 24/7 information overload, we retreat to our primal instincts of tribalism, insulation and start favoring fast, meme-worthy versions of truth, and pass them on without doing the due diligence, with the disclaimer, ‘forwarded as received’. We forgo our own research before making a purchase, instead seeking safety in the number of anonymous people who have previously bought an item. We share anecdotes, pictures of others who have bought the same item as ourselves. We revel in shared experiences in the belief that sharing makes it the universal human truth.
Welcome to the post-truth world. It’s a world in which behavioral marketing profiles the previous behavior of millions of online users in order to determine not only which ads those users will view next, but also push the views of similar users up on social media feeds. This is deemed to give businesses insight into the habits and desires of customers, allowing for a deeper level of ad customization.
Such behavioral targeting deploys web analytics, cookies, search and browsing history, computer applications and IP addresses to generate user profiles of individual customers. Using that extensive information, the website’s ad server generates targeted, relevant content which appeals to the interests of the person. Once a person buys a product or a service, the information is used to create an online peer pressure group, “Your friend likes / has bought X, you’ll love it too!”
The norm becomes the truth. The meme becomes the reality. So self-propagating are our belief systems that anything outside the bubble is viewed as heresy, unacceptable – with an ever-growing intolerance of alternative views. Our judgments about people are made on the basis of their Weixin, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles or feeds, not a face-to-face interaction. After all, it is much easier to unfriend someone online than to suddenly walk away in the middle of a conversation-in-person simply because you do not agree with his or her views.
We may have the data, but let’s not forget instinct. Even as we look for patterns in the numbers, let us not ignore the signals from the outliers. It’s time to stop running with the herd. Which is the only way to avoid getting trampled.