Image: Etienne Girardet (Unsplash)
Ever felt like maybe your cellphone is “listening” to, “watching” or “tracking” you? You search for a certain product that you’d like to buy online or you mention something specific in a conversation. Soon after, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms start showing you adverts for that same product. Coincidence? Unfortunately not! Shoshana Zuboff wrote an entire book called, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” which dives in-depth into how one’s personal data is commodified by Silicon Valley Giants and other corporate bodies. As the saying goes, “If the product is free, you are the product.” This occurrence not only feels a little like a violation of your privacy; it has devastating consequences in the political realm as it undermines democracy. A prime example here is the Cambridge Analytica Scandal where roughly 87 million Facebook users’ data was harvested (without consent) and leaked mainly for the purpose of political advertising. Zuboff states that “such …self-authorizing power has no grounding in democratic legitimacy, … eroding the processes of individual autonomy that are essential to the function of a democratic society.”
You may think that you dictate what you see and what you engage in on social media platforms. This is only partly true. Yes, you do choose which posts you “like” and “share” which then tells the algorithm to continue to show you similar content but those posts, and any new ones (to re-engage your attention), were shown to you courtesy of the social media platforms in the first place. It gets worse… Some of you may have a smart speaker such as Google Home or Amazon Echo. These devices learn your patterns of behaviour, your habits and your daily schedule in some cases. They are engaging in behavioural prediction, the data of which is then sold. Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. This data is then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioural future’s markets — business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later”.
How does Surveillance Capitalism and behavioural prediction data coincide and overlap with democracy? Capitalism is defined as the private ownership of capital goods. Investments are made on the principle of competition in free markets, thus, power is concentrated in the hands of the few and wealth inequality increases. Surveillance Capitalism is, therefore, a new economic system wherein “the economic orientation is the puppet master; technology is the puppet”. Democracy is defined as a form of government where the people have a say in the functioning and representation of their government, legislation and other core issues, thus, the power is more spread out. At least, it should be… Capitalism has, over the years, become devoid of, and practically separate, from democracy. Surveillance Capitalism, even more so. Surveillance Capitalism has taken on an autocratic governance form where a person’s behaviour is effectively exiled from themselves and is decided by ‘higher powers’ , in this case, the tech giants and advertisers who purchase this behavioural data. We, the users, are losing our autonomy. Without this autonomy of our own decision-making, we are unable to make sound moral judgements and “educated guesses” which are all necessary in a democratic society. We are, in some cases, being told what to think, how to behave, and what to believe. This is because companies and political campaigns make use of Surveillance Capitalism to side-step democratic institutions and governance mechanisms through lobbying and deception. It has become the public relations modus operandi.
What can be done about this? Regulation, accountability and user responsibility. Yes, this is all easier said than done. Chances are, surveillance capitalism won’t fall away very easily or quickly either. However, any step in the right direction is progress.
Regulation is the first step in tackling this issue. Institutions need to be established, with the help of already existing democratic institutions, that address the mechanisms and imperatives of Surveillance Capitalism. This should include using privacy and antitrust laws. Larry Page makes an important point, “how could [any social media company] follow any law that came into being before the internet?”. Such laws, thus, need to be revisited and amended. The importance of regulation can be seen in the case of the Christchurch terrorist attack in New Zealand. Before the attack took place, a post was made on an anonymous message board called 8chan; regularly featuring racist and extremist posts. This post included an 87-page manifesto with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant slurs. A link to a Facebook page was made available where the attack was live-streamed. Another example is in 2013 where Al-Shabaab militants live-tweeted their attack on shoppers in a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Social media has become a tool for terrorists; they seek an audience for publicity to support their idea of political change. If these posts and pages could be detected early and removed, it takes away a tool of power from them. Just as easily as these extremist groups can spread their ideals, so can political figures in their political campaigns; giving biased (often, inaccurate) information that benefit them, thus, undermining democracy.
Accountability will work much the same way as a psychologist answers to an ethics board in the case of misconduct. Surveillance Capitalism does not work on a trust-based relationship as an attorney or doctor would. Tech giants currently do not bear such a responsibility. They are usually indifferent to users’ privacy and data and are free from sanctions, the law, or suspension. Nazreen Ebrahim is the CEO, Founder and AI Ethics Officer of the South African company, “Socially Acceptable”. According to Ebrahim, this is in preparation to strengthen the AI Africa Report research team.
You, as the user, can also play a role. Whenever you come across a post that contains information labelled or identified as “news”. Do. Your. Research! Never take statements and information at face value. It’s important to separate fact from fiction (such as certain conspiracy theories). By not sharing or engaging with false information, you are “removing” the possibility of the post being spread and telling the algorithms that you no longer want to see posts related to that topic. With great power comes great responsibility.
With all this said, it is not all doom and gloom. Social media has provided many benefits; connecting old friends, maintaining long-distance relationships, and help plan one’s dream vacation on Pinterest. All the negative consequences that have now resulted could not have been predicted the day the internet was invented. This article is merely the tip of the iceberg and Surveillance Capitalism goes much deeper than what was covered here. There are also many mechanisms and those that have yet to come into existence, have not been mentioned here. This is all meant to create awareness and draw your attention to the responsibility we all have to ensure our democracies function the way they should and that we strive to maintain our autonomy on the social media platforms we have come to value so much.
Selycia considers herself a jack of all trades, with her interests and abilities widespread. She wants to pursue as many of them as she can in her lifetime. She believes life is not meant to be a straight “normal” line but a beautiful journey of segues. Selycia is one of the permanent writers on The Art of Politics team.