When powerful players in politics and media gather in secret and their meeting is exposed, is it any wonder that people would see straight through the stagecraft to the leading actors rehearsing their parts? In today’s growing political authoritarianism, there is little doubt that control and consolidation of communications is necessary to manage an agenda and major narratives. In light of the recent meeting between President Trump and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, what new productions are now on the horizon for the people to parse?
If Hollywood’s 2010 reproduction of Facebook’s immaculate birth, The Social Network, is to be believed, its beginnings were humble. Facebook, as the fable unfolds, was born over conversations in a Harvard dorm room. Today, we can see how Facebook is part of a constellation of companies — such as Instagram and WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook); Google; Oculus VR; and over 70 others — which form synergies between a variety of different sectors. These include banking, payments and currency (e.g. Libra); brain-machine learning (e.g. CTRL-Labs); and gaming (e.g. Beat Games) that, together, have created a new political economy of communications.
Journalist and news media critic Ben Bagdikian draws uncanny parallels to that economy, its contemporary moves toward media consolidation as well as media conglomerates of the past in The New Media Monopoly, laying out how a “small group of interlocked corporations … now have effective control over all media on which the public say it depends.”
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How does such control appear in today’s new media economy? As WIRED contributor Antonio García Martínez observes,
Facebook … is a monopsonist of human attention. The social network leverages suppliers of media, typically it’s users themselves, who voluntarily supply Facebook via their own hyper-mediated personal lives. Other suppliers are conventional media outlets such as The New York Times or Fox News, which (semi)voluntarily share their expensive-to-produce content via News Feed.
Intersecting corporate relationships, similar to those that existed in traditional media, have emerged. These interrelations coalesce around a Silicon Valley “bro culture” rooted in misogyny, myopic thinking and obsessive forms of control over discourse. Ultimately though, Facebook is just one among many other big tech ventures organized around a culture dominated by men who seek, explicitly or otherwise, to maintain their grip on prevailing social narratives.
They have done so by fundamentally changing the publishing model. Today, algorithms engineered to hold readers’ attention funnel content to social media users. The activation of fear, paranoia and outrage are built into these algorithms, which are highly effective in mobilizing reader emotions.
Social media sites such as Facebook have become products and vectors of a divided and fearful culture. Incentives, structural imperatives and ideological propensities all help form part of the bigger picture in which Facebook reflects, perpetuates and exacerbates divisiveness. Understanding how this dialectic came to be, however, necessitates a look back at recent history.
Facebook and Surveillance Capitalism
Facebook began as a social networking site in 2004. This was a year after founder Mark Zuckerberg had launched its predecessor, Facemash. This site allowed male Harvard students to comfortably compare the outward beauty of female classmates via side by side photo comparisons. Thus, issues with privacy and sexism were an integral part of the very inception of the idea of social networking.
Moreover, Facebook developed in sync with privatization of the internet. Digital technology itself allows for diverse and noncommercial information flows. As author and media theorist Robert W. McChesney has demonstrated in his book, Digital Disconnect, a largely public internet was transformed into a hyper-commercialized space during the 1990s. Initially, these powerful information tools were subsidized by taxpayers with enormous public sums estimated to be in the range of “hundreds of billions” of dollars.
Industry lobbying, then, influenced media policies during this period. Major parts of the internet dedicated to public service have since been transformed into “free market” commodities. As a consequence, capitalist logic was imposed on the internet. This happened much to the chagrin of scientists who initially created the internet with public money.
While privatization and advertising drove technological development, the traditional advertising model began to collapse as users became increasingly reluctant to click commercial advertising banners. So the advertising industry invented a new model based on tracking, targeting and analyzing the so-called footprints of selected consumer groups.
Data-tracking online user behavior has now become the core commodity of the digital communication system. Early market entrants perfected the surveillance of prosumers — online users who create and modify content — for value extraction. As Christian Fuchs argues: “Users, their personal data, and their usage behavior become object of permanent economic surveillance and commodification so that profit can be accumulated by selling the users, their data, and their usage behavior as commodity to advertising clients.”
Network effects (defined simply as the phenomenon whereby the more people use a particular service or product, the more valuable it gets) and the winner-take-all nature of digital markets have reigned supreme. Near-monopolies, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon now dominate the online environment — with drastic consequences: the day-to-day online activities of ordinary people are stored on the servers of a few giant corporations. These online footprints are sold to other companies for advertising purposes. Even worse, intelligence services of powerful states can access personal data to identify dissidents and social movements that threaten the status quo. Online surveillance, thus, not only fosters economic exploitation, but also political repression. Essentially, advertising largely supports and abets commercial companies and intelligence services’ global mass surveillance projects.
Significantly, exploiting user data for commercial purposes has been crucial to these companies’ commercial success. In her stunning new book, scholar Shoshana Zuboff coins the term “surveillance capitalism” as a “parasitic” and “self-referential” system. Surveillance capitalists try to acquire “our voices, personalities, and emotions,” she writes, “in order to nudge, coax, tune, and herd behaviour toward profitable outcomes.”
Surveillance capitalism has also encouraged the exploitation of users for political purposes, leading to the deployment of deliberately misleading news stories during various political events and a general decline in democracy; clickbait and propaganda have been weakening the online information environment.
A 2019 report by the British Parliament’s Commons Select Committee reprimanded the online practices of tech companies. The report argued that, “Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law.”
In fact, ethics and citizen civil rights mean nothing to men with such powerful tools in their hands.
Big Tech and Public Relevance?
What all this tells us is that we are confronted by a completely new media ecology that isn’t meant to enable or deliver democratic empowerment. To the contrary, the new digital economy allows big tech corporations to determine what the public sees and does. In the not-so-distant future, the algorithms of surveillance capitalism will conquer our electric appliances, automobiles, toys, households and everyday interactions.
We must look to important conceptual frameworks used to analyze traditional media with reference to market concentration, advertising funding and ideological control that still remain highly relevant. The effects and structures of contemporary surveillance capitalism should also be investigated on the basis of an intersectional approach to explore how sexism, classism and racism are reproduced within online environments.
We have entered a new age of surveillance capitalism, and we must continue to work to understand how our ideas and opinions are being commodified and turned against us, and then, we must act to make this Orwellian reality unprofitable. After all, 1984 ought to, at least, remind us all that autonomy and agency are just as invaluable as privacy.