Thesis #21

Surveillance capitalism is undermining democracy

It’s taken us a while to get here, but we now beginning to understand how the dominant business model of the Web can have profound impacts on democratic politics. It’s a long and complicated story (see the article by Alexis Madrigal for a good account), but basically it happened because Facebook and Google get most of their revenues from advertisers to whom they sell user data that enable advertisers to deliver targeted messages to users. To make this data-extraction, refining and auction system easy for advertisers to use, both companies have constructed huge automated systems. What they didn’t seem to anticipate is that these systems would be used not just by people wishing to disseminate targeted commercial messages, but also political ones too. And unlike most political campaign advertising, these targeted ads were not publicly visible to everyone. And it is now widely believed that such ‘political’ uses of social media can have significant impacts on elections.

Other (related) factors included (i) the fact that search algorithms could be ‘gamed’ by political actors; (ii) maximising ‘user engagement’ is critical to surveillance capitalism and users seem more likely to engage with dubious content like so-called “fake news”, so Facebook had an implicit conflict of interest in detecting and blocking such content; and (iii) the tech companies seem to have been extraordinarily naive not to see that their powerful advertising machines could be used for non-commercial purposes.

Further reading

Alexis Madrigal, “What Facebook Did to American Democracy (And why it was so hard to see it coming)”, The Atlantic, 12 October 2017.

Nick Bilton, “’Oh My God, What Have I Done’: Some Early Facebook Employees Regret the Monster They Created”, Vanity Fair, 12 October 2017.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, “How Trump Conquered Facebook – Without Russian Ads”, Wired, 23 February, 2018.

Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott, “Russian Election Interference is Digital Marketing 101”, The Atlantic, 19 February 2018.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses”, New York Times, 8 September 2017.