America has a big disinformation problem, and it's driven by digital advertising and data hoarding

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
February 22, 2018

Just after Valentine’s Day last year, New Yorkers were treated to a very unusual digital billboard ad draping one side of the Port Authority in Manhattan. It read: “Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day, what did you do?”

The ad, which referenced the famous Justin Bieber song, was run by Spotify, the popular streaming music app that boasts more than 70 million global subscribers. It was a hit. Spotify would go on to post versions of the billboard in leading markets around the world. In a further sign of the ad campaign’s influence, Netflix picked up the theme last December with its own tongue-in-cheek tweet about the now infamous movie “A Christmas Prince.” That Tweet was ‘liked’ nearly 454,000 times.

These ads went viral because they picked up on a humorous, if uncomfortable truth about the way the intimate details of our daily lives are being recorded by our favorite online services. Unfortunately, we are all so accustomed to this kind of “surveillance capitalism” that instead of alerting us to potential violations of privacy, this kind of digital schadenfreude is more likely to amuse than alarm us.

These ads show us how much our favorite online services know about us. But for most people the broader implications of how this information can be exploited for commercial and political gain is only now coming to the surface. Music apps like Spotify and Pandora, over-the-top video services like Netflix and Hulu and of course the biggest internet platforms — including Facebook, Twitter and Google — regularly collect tremendous amounts of individual behavioral data and use it to maintain granular profiles about each and every one of their users. This practice is core to the business. These individual profiles are then analyzed over time and synthesized into profiles that are sold to advertisers that target commercial messages. This is the basis of a multi-billion dollar marketplace for digital advertising.

Read the full piece at NBC News