Cover Letter

Multimedia by Mouad Kouttroub

Social Media Institutions Threaten The Democratic Project

The imperceptible shifts in our behavior induced by surveillance capitalism erode democratic culture and personal autonomy.

Oct 11, 2020

A little more than two decades ago, the digital revolution began. While few would truly understand the ways in which our world was about to change, it was common consensus that the digital revolution and the democratic project would go hand in hand. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, were going to be a driving, perhaps even liberating force of democracy in the twenty-first century. It was a well-reasoned argument — after all, we were promised a new world, a different world: unfettered and equitable access to information, civil empowerment and robust public discussion.
Our world did change. But the nature of this change, when one truly comes to observe it, has been shockingly unpredictable. This massive virtual infrastructure, which we once believed would facilitate the spread of democratic culture, has instead been weaponized to further the goals of authoritarianism, spread misinformation, sow division and increase polarization.
For instance, in Brazil, amid the presidential elections, a pro-business interest group utilized WhatsApp as a medium on which to launch a disinformation campaign which damaged the chances of the left-wing candidate and allowed now President Jair Bolsonaro to claim victory. More recently, a damning report was published by the Wall Street Journal which brought to light Facebook’s complicity in facilitating communal division and hate-filled nationalism in India. A Bharatiya Janata Party politician, T. Raja Singh said that Rohingya Muslims should be shot, labeled Muslims as traitors and threatened to destroy mosques. Officials within the India division have stated that punishing violations by BJP politicians would damage Facebook’s business prospects in the country. The gross misuse of Facebook as a platform to spread misinformation and foment hatred between different ethnic groups can also be seen in Myanmar, where a lack of regulation helped fuel the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
What is imperative to note, however, is that these events are indicative of a massive cultural, or perhaps in many ways, even psychological and social shift that is occurring right now. Shoshanna Zuboff, a social psychologist, calls this massive cultural shift “surveillance capitalism.” Surveillance capitalism is essentially a mutant form of an economic system that specializes in the mining of human experience and data. Our behavioral data — data points that reveal our habits, opinions, social relationships, desires and even sleep patterns — is effectively mined and sold off as a predictive product to the highest bidder. The objective is to extract as much information as possible from the user, and once these predictive products are sold to advertisers, the data is harnessed for targeted advertising and content curation. Algorithms have been diligently amassing vast amounts of consumer data which social media platforms exploit to target our individual susceptibilities and vulnerabilities. To make matters worse, algorithms have become advanced to the point where targeted advertisements and personalized content curation subtly influences our thoughts, behaviors and decision making.
The perceived sense of agency that accompanies your scrolling and double-taps is dangerous. Though an illusion, it is a comforting thought: one’s newsfeeds and timelines being a reflection of their ideological leanings and a proxy of their autonomy. In reality, however, this is simply not the case. The algorithms trap us in ideological echo chambers and create personalized realities that cement our perceptions of the world. This fuels political polarization, facilitates social fragmentation and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction.
However, that is only the surface of the problem. These are mere effects — the very worst manifestations — of a larger, more pervasive dilemma that often goes unnoticed. Our perceived agency, in reality, is a placeholder for our loss of autonomy. We are no longer able to distinguish between ideas or decisions that are our own and those that are ingrained in us to serve the vested interests of advertising firms. Before we know it, we, or rather the imperceptible shift of our behavior, becomes the product. What is lost in this manipulative transaction is our right to the future tense. We can no longer envision the future and project ourselves in it independently. Our free will, critical thought and moral judgment are tinted by the behavioral modification characteristic of surveillance capitalism. This hijacking of free will and our collective futures corrodes democratic culture from its very core.
Skeptics might naively deploy the age-old defense of distinguishing between the platform and the publisher. It is time we understand the scale of the crisis our democracies face. Social media platforms have the power to influence elections, sway public opinion and shape consumer preferences and perceptions. Given the magnitude of this influence, the only viable entity that one can ascribe responsibility to is the platform itself. The alternative is to place the burden of responsibility on the individual. However, to hold individuals accountable without a regulatory mechanism in place is completely redundant. Our physical world itself is regulated by well-defined legal systems that promote individual accountability where violations are met by consequences. The irrational dissonance between our notions of regulation, laws and accountability in the real world and virtual spaces needs to be done away with.
On the note of accountability, we must pause to consider the connotations carried by the word “platform.” The word embraces a certain notion of passivity which abrogates social media firms from responsibility. It blatantly misrepresents the intrinsic nature of social media firms, which actively and consciously curate, disseminate and target. It is critical that we reevaluate the language we use to describe said platforms since this affects the wider perception. Perhaps, they can be viewed as institutions instead of platforms, as that would accurately capture their scale, agency and influence.
Any attempt at reigning in and regulating social media institutions has to be cognizant of the business models they operate on. Their aims to maximize engagement, expand growth and increase revenue frequently exist in direct opposition to the democratic project. Any form of regulation will have to grossly realign financial incentives. In order to ensure the survival of democracy, or these institutions, it is crucial that the profit model evolves in a way such that it values data security and user privacy just as much as advertiser revenue. It is essential that we start crafting legislation and regulatory mechanisms that are conscious of the scale and influence of surveillance capitalism. These institutions have grown so rapidly and have become embedded in our lives to the extent that no single entity — not even the institutions themselves, governments or the public — exercises full control over them. As a society, we have come to adopt these technologies with a certain recklessness that disregards the risks and the existential implications they can have.
We must handicap the institutions’ ability to hoard data, disaggregate their services and advocate for antitrust laws that restore balance and healthy competition within the increasingly monopolistic industry. Our enforcement mechanisms need to be external and independent, for it has been well-established that self-regulation has been consistently, but unsurprisingly, ineffective. We need independent bodies, with considerable authority and the required legal and technological expertise, to maintain strict oversight over these institutions.
The prerequisite for these larger structural shifts — in policy and business model — is a cultural shift. We need a sea of change in public opinion. This begins with naming and recognizing the problem. It is also crucial to spark public conversation and push for legislation that grants greater digital rights and protection to the individual. Developing public education systems that focus on media literacy, ethics and technology is an absolute must. The public needs to understand and fully grasp the pervasive nature of surveillance capitalism as well as its erosive effect on our democracies and free will. We must create a culture in which we perceive, treat and regulate our information environments the same way we do our physical environments, by investing in their development and attempting to exercise stewardship.
Vatsa Singh is Opinion Editor and Githmi Rabel is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email them feedback at
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