Imagine you are having coffee at your favourite restaurant with a friend, catching up on life updates. Your friend mentions that, she’s going on a vacation in the Himalayas and asks you to join her. You discuss the matter further and the topic fades. But just as you reach back home, your phone starts showing you ads on ‘best places to stay in Himachal’.
Sounds familiar? You might feel excited at first and think it’s a coincidence or that it’s a sign that you should, in fact, go on a vacation. But rest assured, that is not the case. This is a classic example of what the realm of ‘targeted ads’ is like.
In the earlier century or even a decade ago, advertisements were done through mediums such as radio, newspapers, magazines, leaflets or billboards. So, if you had a business that you wanted people to hear about, you would take a shot in the dark and pay any one of these mediums to display brief information about your products and services. The reason why it’s a ‘shot in the dark’ is because there was simply no way of knowing whether the people who are reading your advertisement use or need the product you’re selling. And it was even more difficult to estimate how many ad viewers actually bought the product.
In these last couple of years, though this dynamic has changed, especially with the rise of Google and Facebook. Advertising has become a huge market which collects and sells consumer data to companies which sell relevant goods and services. The algorithms developed by social media platforms like Google and Facebook analyse the digital activity and ‘online behaviour’ of its users. Let’s say if you are looking for a pair of shoes on a shopping website and you buy one.
Eventually, you’ll get ads to buy a pair of socks based on your buying and searching history.
Your online activity tells the internet a lot about you including your gender, age, financial status, the name of your dog, your menstrual cycle and whether you’re following that diet you said you would. All of this information is being collected and sold to the highest bidder in real time, so that they can show you the products they think are of your interest.
On the one hand, advertisements seem great, even though they’re invasive. After all, they allow us to access content that we would otherwise have to pay for, such as YouTube videos, podcasts and blogs.
If we think about it, an advertisement is nothing but a tool to influence people into buying or maybe not buying something. But, the downside is that the personal data that is being collected online is not just used to target consumers. Unfortunately, it can be used to influence people into doing, thinking and feeling in a certain way.
Now we’re off to the ‘creepy’ and ‘invasive’ part of the internet. The same data that is used to influence people into buying shoes, can also be used to make you vote for a political leader, to propagate hate speech, to spread misinformation or lies and rumours that result into physical violence. This issue was widely popularized when Donald Trump was elected as USA’s president and was accused of using internet data to manipulate people’s opinions.
So, what can we do to prevent this invasion of privacy? The obvious answer is that stricter laws need to be established in order to control who has access to this data and to what extent they can use it. Google and Facebook have been reportedly trying to draw the line between positive and harmful effects of such data analysis.
But, when it comes to staying vigilant on a personal level, we can take help of Psychology. Lot of factors can cause us to agree or disagree with a message and a lot of them have to do with how we respond to persuasion. But, if you can recognize when you’re being persuaded, it’s a lot easier to stop and make sure that your opinions are ‘your own’.
In the field of study of persuasion, the ‘Elaboration Likelihood Model’ is one of the most widely known. This model divides our responses to persuasion into two categories: 1) Central Route, where we thoughtfully evaluate a message and 2) Peripheral Route, where we make a decision using our ‘gut feelings’. Most of the times, we end up using the Peripheral route and go with our gut feeling. Like when we assume the ‘dentist’ in a toothpaste commercial who is recommending that toothpaste, is actually a dentist. We cannot be critical of every message/ input that comes our way thus both the routes are important and useful. But, it helps if we ‘recognize’ which route we’re taking in a situation, so we can decide if the situation requires critical judgment.
People who have a ‘need for cognition’ are excited to think about things and tend to take the central route. Another factor which influences how we form opinions about things is the number of people in support of that opinion. If majority of the people think an idea is good, any critical arguments about that idea matter less to the viewer. But if only a minority of people support an idea people tend to look at the arguments and think critically. For example, if we see a post getting repeatedly shared on Facebook, we tend to be less critical towards that post as most people think it’s good.
In an era, where these manipulative tactics have become a part of our lives, the only thing we can do is to remind ourselves that we hold the power to critically evaluate everything that comes our way.