Law vs disorder in the Wild Web

In marketing circles, we like nothing more than to talk about "bravery" and "purpose". Yet when it comes to the thorny issue of the ethics of the internet, business leaders are conspicuous by their absence.

On the brink of the 2008 financial crisis, the world’s largest banks were considered "too big to fail". Now, assessing the growing dominance of Google and Facebook, marketers would be forgiven for asking themselves are they "too big to care"?

In marketing circles, we like nothing more than to talk about "bravery" and "purpose". Yet when it comes to the thorny issue of the ethics of the internet, business leaders are conspicuous by their absence. We devalue language until we squeeze all the meaning out of it. Then all we are left with are the empty platitudes where the meaningful action should lie.

The self-same marketing directors and agency chiefs lamenting the impact of social media on their children’s mental health and the broader implications on society, at dinner tables across the globe, are yet to press pause on their marketing spend. Or agitate for meaningful change or investment in online safety and tackling the ever-increasing tentacles of fake news that appear intent upon strangling the world’s democracy.

Fraudulent supply chains and chaotic viewability standards are just the tip of the ethical iceberg for the digital marketing industry. At the time of writing, following the deadliest mass shooting in US history where 59 people were senselessly murdered, videos questioning whether the shooting really happened and claiming the US government has lied about basic facts have already racked up millions of views on YouTube.

Victims of mass violence face the almost unfathomable cruelty of being called liars. Of having their pain and suffering exploited, their narratives stolen, twisted, taken in a multitude of directions across the web. The grief of loved ones commodified, co-opted, distorted and sold to deliver eyeballs for advertising inventory.

In an ecosystem in which truth and identity have become fluid and connectivity the end itself, the cost to society as a whole and the implications for brands are only just beginning to be understood. When consumers hold brands responsible for where their advertising appears, it is an issue that is not going anywhere fast – yet it is one that much of the industry appears to be inexplicably struck mute on.

In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, charts the rise of robot companions such as Paro, the robotic seal. Paro, used as a companion for dementia patients and people in care homes, is modelled unashamedly on a baby harp seal and responds directly to human touch. Patients formed deep bonds with the bot that were meant to provide an addition to human contact. When used in care homes, researchers found that family members reduced their contact with elderly relatives. The seal – designed as a proxy for human connection – had become a substitute. "As well as" had quickly morphed into "instead of".

Now we are facing up to the consequences of our very own "Paro in our pocket", the smartphone powering a life lived elsewhere. In an era where attention is only ever partial, the danger is that marketers and consumers alike, flooded with irrelevant information, fail to grasp the complexity, scale and urgency of the challenge we face online. For the things we lose will not be easy to get back.

Nicola Kemp is the trends editor at Campaign.

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