Have a look at the picture above. What do you notice? Obviously, they’re not real – these images are generated by artificial intelligence (AI). What else do you see? Apologies to anyone who isn’t the CEO. The more discerning among you may see that there’s no women in the images above (the possible exception may be the intern).
This is one of many issues we are going to face with AI. To put it in the simplest possible terms, AI tools are created by people. They also use inputs and data from other people. And every person out there has biases, regardless of whether they are conscious or unconscious. This issue is being amplified by those who are developing and overseeing AI; if your team aren’t diverse and inclusive enough, then you are going to find that AI replicates the views of its creators (for a simple write-up on the subject, have a look at this piece on the International Women’s Day website).
The same can be said for countries, cultures and religions. Rather than challenging them, AI tools can reflect open biases. At a recent conference in Riyadh one speaker suggested that Saudi Arabia should invest in AI, to effective counter false narratives (the story is here, though the headline is a little off). For any non-technical user of such tools, it’s very hard to discern how an AI tool works – you effectively have to look at the algorithm being used and the sources that the tool is scraping from. Conversely, countries can look to manipulate such tools to design more favorable narratives. Everything is a possibility when it comes to technology.
The other major issue I see, apart from the issue of languages (AI tools are predominantly English-language based) is the lack of information. Let me explain further. In a part of the world such as where I am, it can be a real struggle to discern a full understanding. There’ll be lots of press releases being pushed out, but the PR – surprise, surprise – doesn’t always reflect the reality.
I’ll give you a simple example. If I want to install a charger for an electric car in Abu Dhabi, there’s no way I’d know from looking online at company websites or news portals that I’d have to pay several thousand dollars for permission to do so. I’d have to make calls, follow up on emails, and maybe even visit an office. I can ask a tool such as ChatGPT to write an article on the subject, but it’d never be able to pull this information as it isn’t available online.
AI tools are the talk of the town (whatever happened to the Metaverse, I hear you ask). And these tools can be incredibly useful to generate content. However, we must always be mindful that these tools are only a first draft that we must review for bias and incorrect data. Let’s ensure that we don’t overhype a technology that still has a long way to go before it becomes mature.
On that note, I’d love to hear from you on your experiences with using AI tools, be it for designing images or written content. What concerns do you have? Share them in the comments below.
What is the importance of a word? As Shakespeare said, a rose is but a rose no matter what it may be called. However, words can have a great deal of meaning, especially when they refer to a subject that can be controversial. Take for example an announcement made yesterday by the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority. The statement reads as below:
Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) has announced the formation of a new division focused on the regulation of integrated resorts. These include hotel operations, convention space, entertainment, restaurants and lounges, spa, retail and gaming facilities.
Following global best practices in the regulation of gaming that operate as part of integrated resorts across various jurisdictions worldwide, the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation within RAKTDA will consider the social, cultural, and environmental landscape of the Emirate and cover licensing, taxation, operational procedures, and consumer safeguards. The foremost priority of this new division is to create a robust framework that will ensure responsible gaming at all levels.
The regulatory structure will address the entire gaming enterprise within integrated resorts, requiring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations (including financial crime laws) from operators, suppliers and employees. Additionally, the regulations will cover marketing, advertising, and financial transactions, ensuring that these areas comply with the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation.
The question is what is “gaming”? There’s context here. US casino chain Wynn Resorts filed a regulatory note on Tuesday in the United States to announce plans to enter an agreement with the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah for “the development and subsequent management of an integrated resort.” The phrase, first coined in Singapore, refers to a hotel that includes a casino and other amenities and services.
Now, why does this matter you ask? Gambling is forbidden in Islam. And the issue is particularly sensitive in the peninsula of the Arabian Gulf, which is home to the religion’s two most sacred sites. There is no casino in the Gulf, despite the size of the tourism sector in a country like the UAE. And there are other casino operators in the country too; there is a Caesars Palace off of Dubai’s coastline (this property does not offer gambling and operates solely as a hotel, despite allegedly being designed like a casino). And yet, there are no operating casinos, as gambling is illegal onshore. The wording may also be a nod to Islamic religious sensitivities (the closest casinos to the region are in Lebanon and Egypt).
The gambling industry is massive – the casino and online gambling sector is worth over US$230 billion. And the industry is fast growing, at a double-digit annual compound growth rate over the past decade. Given that gambling markets tie into key geographic markets (think America, Europe, China, India and Israel), it would make economic sense for any hotel operator in the region to look at this area. And yet, the issue is the religious taboo, and the concern of what gambling may mean for the region’s young people especially; there’s little mention of the Arabic word for gambling in the local press (the exception being Arabic translations on international news sites and news wires).
And this is why the word “gaming” was used, rather than gambling. The meaning is understood in English, and the avoidance of the meaning is also clear to see in Arabic. Regardless of the wording being used and its obfuscation, the end result will be the same. Unless, Wynn will be truly opening the world’s first hotel resort fully equipped with PS5s and Xboxes. Now, that would be a sight to behold.
It’s been a while since I’ve written here (I blame overwork, events, and myself for being tardy). But I do want to share some pieces I’ve written recently for others. Here’s my first, with a look at ethics in the region, starting with a look at a local public relations association (MEPRA, if you’re asking) in a piece I wrote for Campaign Middle East.
Yes, I know you’re yawning. There’s really no way to make this issue sexy. But, the issue of good corporate governance matters. It’s the basis for trust and transparency. When a company or organization is above board, you feel you don’t need to question what’s going on. There’s accountability too, and questions get answered head-on. There’s no spin. And this leads me to why I’m even writing this. Recently a local industry body for the public relations sector announced two new fellowships. The fellows are very good at what they do. But they’re also very much part of that organization, with one of them serving on the strategy board (which puts forwards names for fellowships, unless I’m mistaken), and the other on the executive board (which makes the decisions on the fellowships).
So, why does this matter? It’s a good question, and I was asked this by one of the two new fellows a couple of years back when I raised similar issues. After all, this is an honorific title. Well, I work in a job that is all about reputation. My job is to build and protect reputations. And I truly believe the best way to do this is by being straightforward and open. And I benefit indirectly when others do the same, as my profession becomes more trusted. That’s why associations over the world work hard on their corporate governance. To give you an example, here’s what the International Association of Business Communicators says for nominee eligibility as part of their own corporate governance.
Only members of IABC in good standing are eligible to be nominated to be IABC Fellows.
The nominee must have been a member of IABC for at least five years. (The years of membership do not have to be consecutive.)
Current members of the executive board, the Fellows Selection Committee, and anyone who has served as IABC Chair in the past three years are not eligible.
Interestingly, they seek out diverse nominations from their members, just like other associations do.
Now, here’s the other reason why we need to get serious about how we do things as an industry here. I hope I don’t shock anyone when I say that the Middle East isn’t generally known for its transparency or accountability. It may be a stereotype, but this is an image that we shouldn’t be reinforcing through our actions.
I remember the last time I wrote a similar piece, a couple of years back, about the same association that was appointing members to its board in violation of its own charter. The response wasn’t exactly a lesson in reputation management. But I hope that this time around, there’ll be a little more thought given to corporate governance. Given that we work in an industry that’s based on ethics, it should matter to every communications professional how the industry bodies that represent us behave.
It’s safe to say that 2020 wasn’t a vintage year for trust; social media was a cesspool of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic, China, vaccines, and of course US politics (apparently, Washington DC is full of child-kidnapping serial killers who own pizza shops).
The above has been certified fresh by public relations firm Edelman. In its latest annual Trust Barometer survey, the company has done its polling of thousands of people worldwide, and the results are in. Businesses are trusted more than any other group (that includes NGOs, governments and media). Businesses are also seen as the only segment that is both ethical and competent.
Now, there’s both opportunities and challenges here. It could be argued that business is more trusted because it hasn’t taken sides on issues – that’s beginning to change after events last year and in January 2021, with many firms in the US and Europe weighing in on politics publicly. CEOs are increasingly being listened to on issues that have major societal impact (Brexit is a good example of this in the political space. Other examples could include the impact of technology on employment).
But any political stance a brand or the CEO takes is also going to lead to polarization. Take the example of Nike, Black Lives Matter and boycott campaigns. Any public stance, such as advertising on Fox News, can also be taken as a public stance on politics, and lead to calls for boycott.
Some firms are taking a clear stance on issues such as sustainability through their stated purpose. Unilever is a great example of this – the argument goes that younger consumers are looking for brands that share their beliefs and are acting to improve society. However, I’d argue that many CEOs are still risk-averse, and don’t want to be seen to be offending anyone. This is even more true in non-democratic societies, where governments don’t face public pressure through representative systems (my one criticism of Edelman’s Trust Barometer work is that the public/informed consumers in non-democratic societies cannot freely speak their minds, or are consciously/subconsciously pressured to respond in a certain way). I doubt I’d ever see a CEO in my region speaking in a way that may be interpreted as even mildly critical of the government – they’d be out of a job (and the country if an expat) within 24 hours.
Edelman highlights a number of areas where businesses can build a trust surplus. Some are pretty simple – the climate is an issue that we all should be talking about, including businesses. There’s the response to COVID-19, as well as what we can do to further economic growth, and put long-term “thinking” over short-term profits (my assumption here is that the public are referring to income redistribution). There’s one element which will make every journalist howl with laughter, which is “guarding information quality”. In my view, businesses struggle more than any other group with transparency, so I’d love to have Edelman clarify this point (again, my assumption is that as media is less trusted, businesses have to become better at telling their own stories).
I’m going to leave it at that for now. Do have a look at the full report, and let me know your thoughts. Do you expect businesses to speak more openly in 2021? If yes, why and how? And if no, why not?
I hope I haven’t put you off reading this blog, but I wanted to spell out in simple terms what we communicators can expect in 2021. Whilst we do have vaccines and many countries are rolling out inoculation programmes, many of the fundamentals are the same as last year – we’re facing a global pandemic, many people are falling sick, and even more are ignoring health and safety advice. There’ll be more economic ups and downs, lockdowns, and stimulus plans. And communicators will have to do crisis comms on top of their daily work.
Let’s look at the basics, as to where the big focus areas will be in 2021.
Internal Comms is still a top priority
Last year was momentous for internal communications, especially in markets/regions where the function came a distant second to external communications. During the pandemic’s first couple of months, the focus shifted inwards. Communicators were tasked with ensuring employees were educated on health and safety, and in pushing executive messaging. Internal communications came into its own, and the value of good internal communicators was obvious.
Given the state of the pandemic in most countries, I expect that internal communications will remain key to every organization over the next twelve months. Not only will internal comms be top of mind for leadership, we’ll also see more innovation in this space. The number of employee podcasts launched last year in the UAE alone surprised me (though I do wish we’d learn to create content simply and timely, rather than overproduce). We’ll also see more use of martech in the internal comms space in 2021. This is an area to watch and, if you’re a young communicator, focus on for growth and specialization.
Budgets/Owned Content are King for External Comms
On the external side, there’s two issues that’ll determine how well you’ll be able to communicate. The first is money. Specifically, it’s how much money you’ll spend on advertising with your media partners. Last year was brutal for publishers, and the editorial mandate is simple – any editorial space will go to advertisers. I know many editors who aren’t happy with this, but they have little room to maneuver. Unless you have an absolutely brilliant media relations person who’s quite literally related to every journalist out there, you’ll need to up your ad spend if you want to get more coverage.
The other route is owned content. And expect to see more blogs, vlogs and podcasts being launched in 2021 (I’ll admit, I was expecting more in this space in 2020). External communicators are going to focus on their media creation and editing skills in 2021, or spend more money on agencies to help out. There’s still the obvious challenge of amplification – if you’re pushing out via social media, you’ll need to either put ad spend in or work with influencers (including your own employees). The other route to take is using emailers. It’ll be fascinating to watch what happens in the external comms space in 2021.
Fighting Fake News and Rebuilding Trust
The pandemic won’t be over until enough people are immune/following health and safety rules. And, as we’ve seen in 2020, there’s a large segment of society that don’t believe what is said, or just ignore the advice. The biggest challenge for every communicator out there is to work to combat fake news, especially online, as well as regain the trust of the vast majority of the population. I’m already seeing people I know who don’t want to get vaccinated because of what they’re seeing on social media, despite them having relatives who have had this terrible disease.
What’s also apparent is that healthcare communicators need help. Just as the industry came together last spring to help those Communicators who needed support, I feel we need a global effort to come up with ideas and campaigns that’ll promote vaccinations and burst fake need bubbles (I don’t expect any help from the social media platforms on this issue). I’ll write more on this in the coming days.
They’re my three big thoughts for 2021. Let me know yours. And, whatever happens, I wish you all the best of health and success for the coming 12 months.
Now, what does this mean for PR practitioners in the UAE? You’re going to be opportunities to win new business, and that isn’t a bad thing given how bad 2020 has been for business. But it’s not going to be a walk in the park. I’m going to give a few pointers as to what to expect based on my own experiences living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and dealing with media and PRs in Tel Aviv.
Let’s start with Israel’s society, which is incredibly diverse. The country’s mix is ostensibly majority Jewish, with a fifth to quarter of the country identifying as Arab (the Arab population is mainly Muslim, but there are large Christian and Druze groups). The Jewish population hails from all over the world, from Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East (think Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen), Africa (mainly Ethiopia) and the United States. There are also smaller minorities, such as Armenians, Bahais and non-Arab Christian groups.
This cultural cocktail shapes the country’s language. Hebrew is the official language, but Arabic is also widely spoken (most Jewish Israelis don’t speak Arabic, but they should be able to understand the language due to their common roots). Russian is common on the coast too. English is widely understood.
When it comes to Israelis themselves, they’re often called “Sabras” after the prickly pear. Essentially, the stereotype is that Israelis are rude and direct to strangers, but kind to friends and family. This is how that stereotype looks like in the media (see below). I’ve always found the Israelis courteous and hospitable, even when talking about food (hummus and felafel are Arab), and politics (I can’t help it).
Israel is confusing when it comes to religion and secularism. The country is very western (Tel Aviv is has the largest open LGBTQ+ community in the Middle East), but it has become increasingly religious over the past two decades as the Orthodox communities have grown in population and political influence. Most of the country observes Shabbat, the Jewish holy day from Friday night to Saturday evening. It may be too simple an analogy to make, but generally Tel Aviv is the open, business-oriented city, whereas Jerusalem is the religious, political heartland.
The Israeli Media
This is where it gets fun. Israelis are news-obsessed, and this is reflected in their media. The Israeli media is the most open of any in the Middle East. Unlike the rest of the region, there is little censorship and no self-censorship (the exception is when writing on something that is considered harmful to public security, and there are even ways for the media to circumvent these rules). There’s a media outlet for whatever your beliefs may be, from the left wing/center Haaretz (my favorite by reporting) and Maariv to the centrist Yedioth Ahronoth and the right wing Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom. These labels can be unfair, as editors/journalists may give favorable coverage to a given subject one day and write a scathing article the next. The Hebrew language dominates, but there’s Arabic and English-language publications too. All of these publications have significant digital operations, where they compete with digital-only news sites such as +972 and the Times of Israel.
For a country with a population of about nine million people, Israel has a significant number of television stations (both public and privately-owned). Many of them have public affairs shows, which are widely watched. And they’re often scathing of the government. There’s less business-related coverage on television. Likewise, radio is very much current affairs-focused.
Dealing with Israeli PR/Clients
Business-wise, Israel is well known for its technology industry (it’s second only to Silicon Valley when it comes to start-ups) and its defense sector. Both will be of interest to the Gulf. What Israel isn’t well known for is public relations. The sector has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two decades (you can read about this here behind Haaretz’s paywall). Most of the agencies in Israel are small (have a look here); in contrast, there’s fewer big name, global agencies. What this does mean is that there’s an opportunity for Dubai-based agencies to partner up with firms in Israel. It’ll be fascinating to see if agencies here openly promote/announce any such partnerships.
You may need an Israeli agency when it comes to dealing with Israeli clients. From all the media reports flying around about the Israeli-Emirati agreement, much has focused on the potential for business. Expectations are already high, and Israeli clients will need to tread carefully when dealing with reputational issues in the Gulf. They may not listen to advice, and have over-inflated hopes of coverage. Having said that, isn’t that most clients?
I’m going to call it a day for now. I’m sure others will have lots to say on this issue. But one thing is clear – both sides will have to learn quickly how the other works. I’ve already seen a slew of articles in the open Israeli press which have taken apart carefully crafted public messaging. PRs in the UAE are going to have to learn quickly about what makes Israeli media tick if they hope to ensure that their messages are both understood and used by Israeli media. And Israeli clients will need to understand that while there’ll be fewer questions asked of them by the UAE’s media, a paid approach to publications here will be vital to secure coverage. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this plays out.
Everywhere and everything is Coronavirus. Which is understandable, given how it’s changing every part and place of our world. But I wanted to talk about Public Relations/Communications and what this means for all of us.
The advent of the Coronavirus may be a business boost for some, but it be harder times for many in the industry. Here’s my basic run-down of what we should all expect.
Increased Demand for Crisis Comms and In-House People
If you’re working as a crisis communications consultant, you should have already had dozens of requests coming in for support (my general view of crisis comms is if you’re asking for help during a crisis, then it’s usually too late).
What’s fascinating is client-side demand for communicators. I’m seeing many government entities looking for senior people. My feeling is they’ve been blindsided by this, and they have little to no crisis planning. This is especially true for internal communications.
Prepare for Drastic Budget Cuts
Budgets are going to be cut, and agencies will feel this soon (I’m sure many already are). Contracts won’t be renewed, and clients will want to reduce the scope of work. I know the argument about PR being more cost effective than marketing, but this won’t have much of an impact on business leaders who need to save money for business continuity planning.
The Opportunity and the Challenge
It’s amazing to see how many companies have my details. I’ve received over 200 emails from companies, all listing what’s happening to the business. Everyone is asking questions, and this is a huge opportunity for communicators to support on messaging and positioning.
However, there’s a caveat here. Things are moving so fast that positions and messages can change overnight, especially for certain industries. I’ve seen senior communicators praise what their country is doing for the public one night, only for the government to announce a closure of its borders in the morning. Communicators have to be extra careful about positioning/messaging right now, and ensure that whatever is being conveyed is actually being put into practice.
We AllNeed Support
Whatever your role and your activity, you’ll need support. None of us have gone through anything like this before (SARS/MERS were the closest examples, but they were still regional). We will all need help in terms of what we are doing. And we will also need mental support.
So many people are relying on us to help them understand what is happening and what they need to do. Let’s do more to support one another. I’ve been encouraged by what regional and global associations are doing. It’s incumbent that all of us reach out to friends and colleagues in the industry to check on one another, and be there to listen and to help. This also includes giving to financial assistance programs run by the likes of the CIPR.
I want to wish you all the best of health right now. Stay well, stay safe, and stay the course. We will prevail.
I feel like I’m writing something Kafka-esque. In in the Middle East, a geography of 200 million souls who read and write essentially the same language (I’m going to side-step the awkward question of how Arabic is spoken), and I’m working in communications. And yet, the industry is dominated by non-Arabic language speakers, at least in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai.
This isn’t just anecdotal. Overall, just 32% of respondents to PRCA MENA’s inaugural Middle East PR and Communications Census 2019 were nationals of countries in the region. Overall, a fifth of the region’s PR professionals are British, 18% come from India, and the range of other nationalities represented are indicative of the Middle East PR corps having a richly-varied culture mix.
Diversity matters, of course. But I don’t think we even have that when it comes to engagement, given that so much of the content being produced is in English (the most widely spoken language in the UAE isn’t even English, it’s Hindi).
The communications industry has to play its part too. There’s obvious benefits to improving our ability to communicate in and create Arabic language content. We’ll be reaching a much wider audience in their language. In addition, understanding a language is one step to understanding a culture and its traditions. And by strengthening our Arabic language capabilities, we’ll be able to put Arabic first and create content that’s not translated (any Arabic language native speaker can spot translated content a mile off).
This isn’t going to be a short-term fix. Many of the Arabic-language experts working on the agency side are from countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Given politics in their own countries, it’s much harder to come across visas for them. We’ve got to do more with the Arab nationals who are already in the Gulf region.
So, what role can we play to change?
Develop Arabic Talent
First of all, we’ve got to foster stronger connections with universities across the region, and better educate Arab youth on the opportunities that a career in public relations and communications will provide. And we have to do this as an industry. It’s something I hope that the PRCA will continue to work on.
Support Arabic Leadership
Part of the lack of appreciation for the Arabic language is that there aren’t enough Arab nationals in leadership roles, both on the agency side and with clients. Global agencies especially must prioritize fast-tracking Arab talent into leadership roles.
Most of the Arabic content put out by communicators is actually translated from English. We’ve got to turn this around, and start prioritizing Arabic content production, both in the written word, with audio and video. Arabic is such a rich, descriptive language, and so much is lost when content is merely translated.
There’s no better place to start than with myself, and I’m going to commit to writing more myself in Arabic. If you have any suggestions on this subject, please do share them.
Are you still stuck sending out press releases on that new executive hire? Or prepping for a new product launch with a stock photo and a couple of lines of text? Communications can often feel that it’s a function which is devoid of creativity. With this post, I wanted to inspire you to think that creativity is possible, even on the tightest of budgets. All you need is insights into your audience, imagination, and the bravery to try something new!
Creativity and Technology
I want to share a couple of technology-related ideas and concepts from big brands. One is as cheap as you can imagine (thank you Wendy’s), and another is more expensive, but also shows how new tech can bring life to a very old product.
First up is Wendy’s Fortnite. Watch the video below to see how a simple creative idea can result in a major impact.
The second concept I wanted to share is from Lego. Lego is a brand which is 87 years old. The product is known by kids and adults worldwide. And yet the brand is trying a host of new technologies to change hold children (and adults) play with the products.
One new concept they’ve launched is Hidden Side. This theme is all about ghosts! What have the good people at Lego done? They’re using augmented reality through an app on our phones to transform how we both look at our lego sets, and play with them. Creating a gaming app certainly isn’t a cheap option, but it does make me think about how new tech can give any brand and its engagement a new lease of life. Have a look at the below video to get an idea of how these new Lego sets change the concept of gameplay.
Creativity for PR Stunts
I do love a good PR stunt. They’re a simple way to garner lots of headlines, and also make a wider point about the brand/product and why it is so special. And PR stunts can be both creative and low-cost. Here’s one from Huawei, which has become a master of both PR stunts and trolling its rivals on their areas of relative weakness. Watch what they did to Apple recently. As an iPhone owner, I wish I was in that line.
Creativity in Film-Making
If you have the budget, and are looking to win over hearts and minds in the long-term or tackle a big issue, then film-making is the way to go. I’m talking here YouTube series, television or streaming services here. Two recent examples reminded me how powerful film-making can be. The first was for the new Dora movie. Whilst I’m not a Dora fan (my daughter is), the sight of a group of four teenage girls dancing to the music and following all the twists and turns brought to life how a well-crafted idea can create millions of fans and also open their minds to new concepts (I don’t think anything/anyone has done as much to promote Spanish to the English-speaking world as Dora).
The second piece of content I saw which brought home to me how powerful film-making can be to tackle big issues was Sacred Games, a fictional story about Mumbai’s gangsters and a plot to transform India. There’s a lynching scene which addresses the issue of religion and hatred in India. The scene is brilliantly shot, and has driven debate on race relations in India today in a way that no brand could do. Have a look at the scene below (it is graphic).
I hope these creative ideas have inspired you as to what you can do to liven up your approach to comms and public relations. Whether you have no budget, or an ATM in your office, there’s lots you can do to get people excited and engaged. So, what are you waiting for?
If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.
If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).
As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.
It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:
If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.
Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.
In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.
Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.
Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.
There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).
So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.
If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…