The politics of facebook

This post by Zeynep Tufekci on her Medium site is the best thing I’ve read yet about the recent facebook controversy.

I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as “the world we live in”. That is the key strength of independent academia: we can speak up in spite of corporate or government interests.

To me, this resignation to online corporate power is a troubling attitude because these large corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams. These tools are new, this power is new and evolving. It’s exactly the time to speak up!

That is one of the biggest shifts in power between people and big institutions, perhaps the biggest one yet of 21st century. This shift, in my view, is just as important as the fact that we, the people, can now speak to one another directly and horizontally.

This strikes me as an important fault line, in so far as a superficial difference (i.e. whether or not this bothers you) tracks much broader divergences in political orientation which are likely to become more pronounced as these trends develop over time. However the risk is that this one contentious study becomes a distraction because, as Tufekci points out, this is something Facebook does on a daily basis. What could be lost here is a sense of the political apparatus coming into being and its broader implications:

I identify this model of control as a Gramscian model of social control: one in which we are effectively micro-nudged into “desired behavior” as a means of societal control. Seduction, rather than fear and coercion are the currency, and as such, they are a lot more effective. (Yes, short of deep totalitarianism, legitimacy, consent and acquiescence are stronger models of control than fear and torture—there are things you cannot do well in a society defined by fear, and running a nicely-oiled capitalist market economy is one of them).

The secret truth of power of broadcast is that while very effective in restricting limits of acceptable public speech, it was never that good at motivating people individually. Political and ad campaigns suffered from having to live with “broad profiles” which never really fit anyone. What’s a soccer mom but a general category that hides great variation?

With new mix of big data and powerful, oligopolistic platforms (like Facebook) all that is solved, to some degree.

Today, more and more, not only can corporations target you directly, they can model you directly and stealthily. They can figure out answers to questions they have never posed to you, and answers that you do not have any idea they have. Modeling means having answers without making it known you are asking, or having the target know that you know. This is a great information asymmetry, and combined with the behavioral applied science used increasingly by industry, political campaigns and corporations, and the ability to easily conduct random experiments (the A/B test of the said Facebook paper), it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public, and this is true for Facebook, this is true for presidential campaigns, this is true for other large actors: big corporations and governments. (And, in fact, a study published in Nature, dissected at my peer-reviewed paper linked below shows that Facebook can alter voting patterns, and another study shows Facebook likes can be used to pretty accurately model your personality according to established psychology measures).

One thought on “The politics of facebook

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