Redirection is the new black.
According to Patrick Berlinquette, founder of the search engine marketing consulting firm Berlin SEM, Google conducted an experiment in meant to confront online radicalization. While the intent was benign, the methods of this digital madness are available to all.
With redirection, marketers swerve your monetizable desperation. But we can also swerve something bigger: your beliefs, convictions and ideology. There are advertisers in the digital marketing industry who want to find out how effective this new form of social engineering is. One of those advertisers is Google.
The Redirect Method was a Google-incubated project that used redirect ads to deradicalize would-be extremists. In the first eight weeks of 2016, some 320,000 people — all of whom were believed to harbor sympathy toward the Islamic State — clicked on ads designed to reflect an interest in extremist content. Instead of arriving at a page that supported their views, Islamic State sympathizers who clicked the ads found themselves directed to a playlist of videos debunking the terror group’s recruitment narratives.
Berlinquette ran his own redirection experiments (to help prevent suicide) and found that redirection works well.
Sophisticated marketers are all over this methodology, but the larger point that Berlinquette makes in his op-ed is how anyone with a credit card and the willingness to follow Google’s blueprint can utilize these effective mind- and behavior-changing methods.
The Counter Argument Is Coming In Hot
I can think of so many uses for this tool in the anti-propaganda war. The hard part is knowing when you’ve crossed the line and become a propagandist in your own right. For instance, I’d love to see a redirection campaign used to sway NRA members to totally abandon the gun lobby. I’d love to see another redirection campaign used to sway anti-abortion activists that a woman’s choice is none of their business. And so on.
At the most innocent level, redirection is the simple act of providing an alternate POV at the right time to the right person. But…Berlinquette reminds us that more than 50 percent of people still can’t differentiate between an ad (redirect or not) and an organic result on Google. Media literacy is missing on so many levels. Even advanced users of digital networks expose themselves daily to all sorts of online tracking. Ad blockers and browser add-ons do help, but there is no perfect privacy solution at this time.
Berlinquette suggests, “What the public needs is a free blueprint on how to use Google defensively. But that won’t happen while profits for advertising are tied to exploiting our micromoments.”
Sway At Your Own Risk
When content is indistinguishable and the audience members do not care to check the source, the potential for exploitation is ever tempting. That’s why SEO is known to some as a “dark art.” Even fellow marketers are suspect of the search marketer’s digital sorcery.
It’s well known that Russian hackers are gaming American media today by planting fake stories, or “ads, to mislead the public and create general unrest. All of this is made available by the platforms. Google and Facebook have wide open doors to all advertisers and few limits or definitions on what counts as advertising, and what does not.
Berlinquette said that he thought his ads would be rejected by Facebook, but they were not rejected. He followed Google’s playbook—free for download—and got the results he wanted. The platforms believe in the power of their technology to promote good, and yes, good can come from their tech. Just like bad can come. That’s the deal we’ve made by inviting digital into our lives at the pace and rate that we have.
The technologists also believe in user responsibility, and that’s a particularly weak excuse for them. The customer is not at fault here. It’s up to the platforms to hack their own systems to make them more democratic and safer for all individuals, a.k.a. customers.