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The promise and perils of online targeting

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Digital, Examples & Findings, Innovation, Open Innovation Team, Projects, Research

A photo of Professor David Beer, the author of this blog.

One of the most significant changes in recent years is the move toward online spaces that target us with tailored and personalised content. We are all now having distinct online experiences based on data collected and the inferences made about us. Attempts to target particular audiences have a long history in marketing, PR and information distribution. Yet the escalating collection and use of data produced as a by-product of our interactions with media environments, means we are analysed by advertisers and organisations to a far greater extent than ever before.

This means that there are more opportunities to make predictions about our preferences or to try to shape future behaviours. The depth of data that can be drawn upon to inform online targeting is now vast. The possibilities for using our data to target us continue to expand and so does the sophistication of the targeting technologies that are being used. 

There are two main questions to consider. First, how can we better understand the complex and changing systems underpinning online targeting? And, second, once we have a greater understanding, how might we govern and manage these targeting systems and approaches? These are not easy questions to answer,  especially in such a rapidly evolving arena. We do however already know a fair amount, and there exists a wealth of knowledge, publications and insights that we can tap into in order to build a picture of online targeting, its impact and the directions in which it is heading. 

If we want to be sure that people can participate on a more equal footing, then we will need to reflect on the role of online targeting and the outcomes it creates for people. Ignoring its presence or leaving it to unfold without interrogation or intervention is likely to exacerbate the uneven opportunities and understandings that it already presents us with. However hard these questions might be, they need attention.

In our recently released review of research on online targeting, produced for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in collaboration with the Open Innovation Team, we look closely at what is currently understood about the processes of online targeting. We complement this by looking at what is known of the way people feel about these targeting processes. We also explore the kind of impact targeting has on individuals, commercial organisations and society in general. Finally, we reflect on the different options for governing online targeting and for limiting its more harmful outcomes. In particular we found that:

  • an expanding range of data is being used for targeting purposes
  • most people are uncomfortable with current online targeting practices, though attitudes vary substantially across different age groups, and as levels of understanding change
  • there are a wide range of possible harms and benefits experienced by individuals, organisations and society

The report represents a snapshot of this moving field, and we hope that it will stimulate debate and discussion about how we might fill the gaps in our knowledge, and how we might respond to online targeting. We are yet to discover what biometrics, predictive AI, further developments in machine learning, facial recognition, audio data, social commerce, the internet of things and other developments will mean for the individualised experiences we have when online. So, this is a moment for reflection as we consider what online targeting means today and in the future.

David Beer is a Professor of Sociology at the University of York. He writes about culture, media, politics and society.

Alongside the landscape summary on online targeting, CDEI have also published a landscape summary on algorithmic bias, and interim reports tracking their progress on both of these topics.

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