The dark web is a part of the internet shrouded in myth and trepidation. Accessed only by means of encrypted software, once on the dark web its users are anonymous and untraceable. Many of us know little about it, making assumptions or rushing to judgment. However, some people develop a morbid curiosity about it, or use it for a variety of (often legal) reasons.
This makes the dark web a part of culture, and something we as marketers should know about. To gain a full picture and assess whether it is a place we should explore, I have broken down the topic into The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of the dark web.
There is debate about how dark the dark web can get. Almost all the sites claiming to offer live streams of torture, hitmen for hire or human trafficking have turned out to be fake — either scams to steal bitcoins or trolls adding to the scaremongering.
And good things do happen there. In an era of WikiLeaks and Snowden, the rise of fake news and loss of trust in traditional institutions, it’s one of the few surveillance-free spaces. Whistle-blowers and journalists can converse there anonymously, as can people wanting a forum to discuss abuse, aggression or suicide. It can allow people who live in restricted countries like China to gain global perspectives, or allow people to obtain difficult to access or unaffordable, but necessary medication.
There are parts of the dark web that are illegal, but not overly abusive or harmful to other people — for example soft drugs, stolen data (such as Netflix or Uber accounts) and graphic games containing disturbing content.
And then, there are the parts of the dark web that are so nefarious they become internet folklore, such as religious extremist and terrorism sites, revenge porn, child pornography and ‘hurtcore’ sites. While the hitman and live torture pages are predominantly hoaxes, they still speak to the possibilities of what anonymity online can mean. If you are on the dark web, these things are happening only a few clicks away, and are both highly disturbing and illegal.
Where do we fit in?
The Dark Web is a cultural trend, and it takes a moderate amount of technical ability to get there. There’s a good chance that the millennials going on the dark web to buy pills and research what they read about on Vice are the same millennials many brands are trying to engage with. Billions of dollars are spent on the dark web yearly, with Bitcoin, Ethereum and the like being the currencies of choice.
We can also see the dark web as a part of ‘dark social’. Brands like Gucci, Adidas and even the Labour Party have used Snapchat, WhatsApp and Tinder in an attempt to play in the spaces consumers are already in. As our industry continues to try and crack dark social, operating on the dark web could be the next step in this new wave of marketing.
Advertising on the dark web will not always be the right choice, but if your brand is aligned with its anti-establishment, risk taking ethos then it could be — like Chernyi Co-Operative, a Russian coffee company who used the insight that coffee is like a drug to sell their product on the dark web.
But we can’t ignore the moral standpoint. Ross Ulbricht created and ran Silk Road — the dark web’s most prolific black market — to empower people to make choices with the anonymity that normal society doesn’t offer. Whilst many considered him a freedom fighter, Silk Road became a vehicle for drug trafficking and other serious crimes, resulting in Ulbricht serving two life sentences with no parole.
There are other ethical questions, with brands concerned about appearing alongside extreme or even illegal content. Additionally, some people on the dark web are there precisely to avoid their data being captured. Perhaps there are some places that should remain untouched by brands?
We should not let our fears of the dark web stop us being better informed about it. Then, whether we choose to operate there, or simply use it to observe human behaviour, at least our decisions will be based not on myth but on knowledge and insight.