Nothing is what it seems!

For a moment if you keep the illegality and immorality of the act aside, politicians and their campaign managers would give an arm and a leg to hire this agency. In a cut-throat world of politics, it would be difficult to find a campaign manager that does not want a partner who has all the insights, the answers to all their problems, campaigns which will guarantee (100%) a win and to top it all, a proven track record of running successful political campaigns across the world. The agency was too good to be true!

This is a first impression that I got after watching the ‘The Great Hack, a documentary on Netflix that gives you a ringside view of the events that brought the British political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA) down. 

The documentary is nothing short of a masterpiece in storytelling. It is such a fabulous endorsement for the firm that CA even they could not have done it better!

Other than establishing the invincibility of the firm, which has now shut down (a pity and a relief), there are a few take-aways from the documentary relevant for marketing and communications professions. I share the top four lessons below.

  • Frequently ask yourself, am I crossing the line: My suggestion to fellow marketing and communication professionals, especially the youngsters, is to ask this question of themselves very frequently, especially when you are becoming too successful too quickly. The documentary shows the young and impressionable Brittany Kaiser, blinkered by her success, almost unknowingly cross the line. Even if we strip down the dramatic representation of the documentary, the fact remains that several people within the firm were fully aware they were going beyond the legal boundaries. However, when you are rising through the corporate ladder, the tendency is to turn a blind eye to such warnings. If you are not careful, you run the risk of getting manipulated and eventually ruining your career. It is hence very important to keep on asking yourself this question frequently. 
  • The fallacy of free will: At one point in the film, Brittany Kaiser makes a statement that it was eventually the choice of the voters to vote for a particular party or candidate and that no one forced them. However, the fact is that we seldom make decisions on our own free will – it is a different matter that we are not aware of this reality! Unknowingly, we have created an intricate web of information filters around us, which ensure that we are only exposed to certain types of information and only limited points of views, most that align with what we think is true. Social media platforms that we frequent have sophisticated algorithms that show us only the posts and news that we like to see, which ensures that our biases get reinforced. This would be a text-book case of reinforcing confirmation bias.

The TV news-channels that we watch and the newspapers that we read have become highly polarized. The WhatsApp groups that we choose to be part of are bombarded with messages (both real and fake) to support particular leanings. When we think, we are forming an unbiased opinion, it is not really unbiased. Without realizing it, we are being pushed towards one side of the argument, essentially being polarized without consent or awareness. Brexit was made possible with precisely this phenomenon.

  • A strategic approach will always bear effective results: In the case of the US elections, CA logically segments the voters into strong supporters, strong opposers and the fence sitters. The firm further analyses how many voters they need to turn into supporters to swing the elections and which all states will provide the necessary numbers to win the elections. They do not waste their time in trying to convert the strong opposers but focus all their energies on the fence sitters, which they rightly term as the ‘Persuadables’. Using the insights derived from the data points mined from FB profiles CA derives the personality types of the voters. As personality drives behavior, they create campaigns and content to influence the persuadables and turn them into supporters. If it had not been for the illegal means adopted by them to get the data, this was a brilliant strategy bound to get desired results. 
  • Research is critical for effective communication: Research, if done strategically, can provide a wealth of data and insights. These invaluable insights provide the raw material for creating kick-ass campaigns that can influence target audiences to alter their behaviour. Even if a fraction of what the documentary suggests CA delivered, is true then there should be no doubt in our minds that good research is the foundation of great campaigns.

My recommendation is that every marketing and communication professional should watch, The Great Hack. There are several lessons that one can derive from the documentary but if there is one key lesson that I have to choose, I would take a dialogue from the film, “Nothing is what it seems”. Basis the prolific posting by the billions of users, an enormous amount of data is available with the digital and social media firms. Insights derived from these data points can be used by powerful groups to disrupt behaviour and change the very fabric of society. Therefore, we all should beware of the possibility that our behaviour can be manipulated for ulterior motives!  

Pradeep Wadhwa
Co-founder & Principal at Kritical Edge Consulting
Pradeep is a seasoned communications professional, having witnessed both the client side as well as the consultancy side of life (in equal measures) for close to two decades.

Fortunate to be part of building and protecting reputation of leading organisations and brands across a variety of industry verticals, he has recently founded his unique C-Suite Consulting firm, Kritical Edge.

Previously he has worked in leadership roles with ReNew Power and PepsiCo India among other roles.

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