SCI-TECH

The Road to Digital Unfreedom: Three Painful Truths About Social Media

By: Ronald Deibert

Social media have been battered in recent years by growing concerns about disinformation, privacy breaches, and the spread of harmful speech. This article itemizes the problems surrounding social media and political authority in the form of “three painful truths”—so termed because, although there is an emerging consensus around these points, many people are reluctant to squarely acknowledge the depth of the problems and the fundamental changes that would be required to mitigate them. The first painful truth is that the social-media business is built around personal-data surveillance, with products ultimately designed to spy on us in order to push advertising in our direction. The second painful truth is that we have consented to this, but not entirely wittingly: Social media are designed as addiction machines, expressly programmed to draw upon our emotions. The third painful truth is that the attention-grabbing algorithms underlying social media also propel authoritarian practices that aim to sow confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and chaos, thereby facilitating manipulation and undermining accountability. Moreover, the fine-grained surveillance that companies perform for economic reasons is a valuable proxy for authoritarian control.

Social media have taken a beating lately. The gloss has worn off the large companies that dominate the sector, and with it much of the internet. Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among others, have all been subjected to intense scrutiny because of the negative externalities that their services create. A focus of concern has been the abuse of social-media channels as part of efforts to influence the outcome of major political events, including the June 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the U.S. presidential election later that year. In both cases, studies and intelligence reports show, nation-states and nonstate actors alike exploited, manipulated, and abused social media as a tool of their “information operations.” The role that social-media analytics firms played in these events was especially pronounced.

The situation presents a striking contrast both to the ways in which social-media platforms present themselves, and to how they have been widely perceived in the digital age. Once it was conventional wisdom to assume that these platforms would enable greater access to information, facilitate collective organizing, and empower civil society. Now, they are increasingly seen as contributing to society’s ills. Growing numbers of people are coming to believe that social media have too much influence on important social and political conversations.Others are beginning to notice that we are spending unhealthy amounts of time staring at our devices, “socializing” online while in fact cut off from one another and from nature.

Social Media Equal Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance is an inherent characteristic of modernity, and perhaps even of our nature as a species. We observe, predict, and try to shape the world around us. Over time, the tools at our disposal to do so have grown more sophisticated and extensive. Since the Enlightenment at least, humans have been on a path driven by the belief that more information is better. But is it possible that this instinct can become counterproductive, especially when combined with the staggering powers of digital technology?

It is ironic to recall that there once was a time when people fretted about how to make a profit online. The 1990s dot-com boom and subsequent bust highlighted the “irrational exuberance” around the new information economy. Soon enough, however, innovations by companies such as Google, Facebook, and others not only provided a fresh model of how to draw revenue from internet connectivity, they spearheaded a radically new mode of production that has transformed the world. Called the “personal-data surveillance economy” or “surveillance capitalism,”3 this mode has at its core a fairly simple transaction: Consumers get services (mostly free of charge) while industries monitor users’ behavior in order to tailor advertisements to them.

The companies that make billions off this naturally tend to describe what they do in anodyne terms. Facebook, for example, refers to its users not as “consumers,” but as a “community.” Google says that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” which makes Google sound far more benign and empowering than what it really is: a massive commercial-surveillance system.

Courtesy – JOD