Deb Galentine prepared the following as her response to a question from Anthony but rather than simply posting it as a reply I wanted to give it more attention. Deb is also working on the third piece in her ongoing series on contemporary political warfare.

………………………………..

Hi, Anthony.  I want to thank you for taking the time to comment here on Larry’s blog. Larry’s response & his book cover your inquiries well.  I’ll try to confine my response to the realm of social media as it might apply to movement away from democracy.

The virtual world, cyberspace, has not functioned democratically since it went public & became a capitalistic venture. I see the evolution of the Internet’s spawn such as social media as the ongoing reflection of the embracement of authoritarian control.

In February 2004 when Facebook debuted on the ‘Net, it gained instant popularity with high school and college students. But it wasn’t until Facebook decided to sell itself to everyone, young and old alike, that it really took off. Today, it dominates the Internet as the #1 social media site in the world. “As of the second quarter of 2018, Facebook [claimed] 2.23 billion monthly active users.”  Experts place Facebook’s estimated value at around $500 billion.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

The handful of Harvard students who created Facebook originally intended their invention to be a kind of Who’s Who on their campus. Within months, the student saw earning potential and  “thefacebook” (as it was then named) began carrying advertisements. Since then, Facebook has evolved into a globally targeted advertising company, the product being its users.

Here’s where this all becomes dicey for democracy.  Advertisers study Facebook users for everything they can ascertained about them; the more advertisers know about them, the more specifically they can target them.  Advertisers find all information, no matter how minute it might seem, priceless.

However, people who embrace democracies have always valued their privacy.  One of the first individual rights to disappear under authoritarian rule is the right to individual privacy.  Even so, Facebook managed to convince users that the public display of their most private information served to enhance their own popularity. Facebook made the surrendering of privacy on the Internet trendy and cool.

Facebook insists new users sign up with real names and information (although millions break that rule by establishing fake accounts).  Facebook asks for telephone numbers “to guarantee access to accounts.”  Coders designed the Facebook app interface to suggest to cell phone users that they should upload their cell phone contacts to Facebook because doing so would make it easier for them to find their friends. This is true.  It also gives all that information to Facebook.

They’ve constructed their platform to make inputting copious amounts of private information a social norm. (If everyone does it, it’s OK.) Users lists all places they’ve lived, occupations, momentous occasions, relatives, important dates, relationship status, children, spouses, schools attended, degrees earned, hobbies, favorite TV shows, books, and movies.

Facebook finds users’ emotions revenue-enhancing; information brokers pay well for this data. Towards that end, Facebook built-in emoticons for every feeling a user might be massaging for the moment; friends have learned to become offended if other users display no emotions towards their posts, photos, and comments.  Users train each other to emote freely and openly.

The platform encourages users to find, join and list special interest groups on their “timelines.”  Users can add friends to groups without their permissions. Users can buy and sell almost anything on Facebook, while Facebook keeps a record of ever keystroke users input.  Even if someone decides not to post a comment after composing it, Facebook logs what they keyed in on the platform.

The concept of “Checking-in” became fashionable; go to a movie, the beach, a restaurant, shopping, the hairdresser, the airport, a new city or country— and “check in,” which means posting the information to notify the world exactly where you are located! While they are there, users can post reviews on Facebook to inform the community. By calling it a “community,” Facebook lends itself the image of a safe, small town where everybody is simply a friend who hasn’t yet been met.

People take photos of the food they consumed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. They splash photos of their children all over the pages of this vast wilderness without understanding that the meta-data in those photos could give tech-savvy pedophiles the exact coordinates of their children’s whereabouts.

Overall, across the platform, Facebook normalized the devaluation of privacy.  The platform taught people that privacy is over-rated; that to be friendly, we cannot be private; that knowing everything about everyone is OK.

At the same time, all this information became available to advertisers— and to anyone else who would pay for it (or freely lift it or steal it) including political campaigns, propagandists, social scientists studying users without permission, employers, law enforcement, criminals, and intelligence circles. In the background, Facebook watches, catalogues, stores, dissects, ranks, quantifies, and reports Facebook user activities. They know where users were before logging on to Facebook; they know where they go when they leave.  Facebook can access the mics and cameras on users’ computers and cell phones.

When people become accustomed to giving up so much of their privacy so easily— surrendering the rest of their rights becomes less noticeable. Social media is training people to devalue freedom.  Social media trains its users to function at ease under autocratic rule.

 

 

 

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One response »

  1. Anthony M says:

    Thank you both for your responses….both are definitely food for thought.

    This is very much a preliminary thought…

    What you are describing is in some ways a mechanism that provides a means for ‘actors’ (corporations, states, interest groups etc.) to amplify the impact of marketing or campaign strategies that are as old as the hills, but what is new is the depth of information available to allow precise targeting and the much wider range of information sources each of us has access to than would have been the case 20 or 30 years ago

    This ties in to me with thinking around how our society (and all societies) manufacture consent (in the political sense) and demand (in the commercial sense). The same mechanisms that are providing a much more powerful tool for manufacturing demand for the latest pointless products and fashions are, rather ironically, allowing a much more chaotic set of information flows in the political sphere, effectively disrupting the capacity of societies to manufacture consent for their particular model (if they allow people access to this sort of information in the first place).

    This does rather favour the enemies of the open society as authoritarian regimes are more likely to censor all information flows (that has always been the case, but social media is amplifying the effect).

    I can’t help feeling that, in a sense, the role of social media as a threat to democracy rests on the vulnerabilities in our own society – to be effective disinformation (or just a different political viewpoint ) has to heard in the first place and then resonate with the target audience. Social media is allowing a lot of different messages to get heard and as a lot of people view the current social and economic model as deeply unjust and in effect ‘rigged’ against the majority of people, some of these messages are resonating. Some are appalling and others more ethically principled. Unfortunately it is the appalling ones that seem to be getting the most traction, perhaps because they play so well on raw emotions and prejudices that remain so common.

    I’m beginning to think that if we want to preserve the best of the open society we will need to throw out the worst of our current socio-economic model before the demagogues and wannabe dictators exploit the next economic crisis (whenever it lands) to finish things off….a kind of New Deal for the 21st Century (not an original thought, but I find myself agreeing with some people I would never have imagined I would be on the same page with a few years ago). Odd times…

    Well, I’d better leave it a that! Thanks again

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