Why is the private ownership of social media data a problem for civil society?
In the digital era, the services of private social media companies (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Twitter) are entrenched in civil society and their influence on both the personal and political sphere continues to grow exponentially, presenting new generational challenges to our democratic processes and right to privacy.
Social media, that is, the interactive forms of media that enable users to publish and interact with content online, rely heavily on the docility of their users to willingly hand over chunks of personal data in exchange for their services. This has ‘morphed the public into a database of users’ (Lovink, G. 2016: 21) and Big Data (BD), the extraction and analysis of large and complex data sets, ‘has become a key area for economic and political development’ (Langlois, G. 2014: 170) in recent years. BD companies are launching in all corners of the world with one common promise, to make complex sets of data manageable. Obviously, this is highly valuable as it enables businesses to analyse how their websites are being used and develop reports for potential funders or collaborators. However, such powerful tools of data analyses come with the caveat of placing ‘soft power’ (Nye, J. 1990) into the hands of unelected, privately owned companies.
We have witnessed a huge shift in the social landscape over the past 30 years, with networked technologies completely restructuring our communicative framework, making social media the foremost tool of mobilisation (Lindgreen, S. 2017: 39). For the United Kingdom (UK), the scale of this communicative shift is best observed through the size of its digital population, with 44 million (ComScore, 2019) connected citizens there is no wonder why academics, such as Prof. Natalie Fenton (2015), Evgeny Morozov (2014) and Dr. Geertz Lovink (2011, 2016) write with a distinct urgency on the BD paradigm and the threats it poses to the ‘networked public’ (Ito, 2013).
In her 2018 publication ‘Digital, Political, Radical’, Fenton reminds readers of the enormous challenges to progressive social change that this neoliberal age presents. Stating that ‘the increased power of corporations and transnational financial agencies over public priorities continues unabated despite the evident damage it has wrought’ (Fenton, 2015: 350). With neoliberal politics having this knack of invading spaces of public interest, the ‘networked public’ provides the perfect apparatus to manipulate popular opinion at scale (Wylie, 2019: 96). This, coupled with the BD boom, has seen the emergence of a new form of power, one where a private company can directly influence the flow of ideas and production of new forms of knowledge.
In theory, social media is not inherently dangerous to civil society, although there are pressing health issues of a psychosocial nature (Lovink, G. 2016: 8), the concept of interconnected online communities being able to connect and re-connect, and to create and share content is positive. The issue lies instead within the scale at which private social media companies are able to compile databases filled with personal information (posts, likes, even messages). When in the wrong hands, this information can be used to suppress political discourse and undermine democratic processes. Lovink argues that the BD paradigm has now ‘superseded the power structures of the 1960’s’ with its exponential growth leaving us at the mercy of ‘a coalition of innocent entrepreneurial IT monopolies and equally large security agencies where ignorant users are more than willing to comply.’ (Lovink, 2016: 166) There are calls to ‘democratise the tools used for data collection and analysis’ (Langlois, G. 2014: 172) as their influence in global elections grows hideously larger, but the future remains uncertain.
A key example of the problematic nature of data harvesting can be explored through Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica (CA), an offshoot of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) and former political consultancy firm set up in the wake of the 2014 United States (US) Presidential Election campaign. Former CA employee and whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, released ‘Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World’ in 2019, where he describes the firm as ‘a company with large amounts of data that delivered targeted content and was capable of moving public opinion en masse’ (Wylie, 2019: 95), developed as a vessel of disruption that sought to challenge mainstream media.
The firm utilised datasets obtained mainly through Facebook which, startlingly, Wylie describes as ‘easy to acquire’ (2019: 96). Which is especially topical as newly leaked emails between Facebook and CA depict a remarkably casual relationship, where data security seems to take a backseat. With the datasets they attained from Facebook, CA were able to develop political profiles for voters and target them with personalised political adverts. In the case of the 2016 US Election, states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan were specifically targeted and proven to be central to the election victory. Known as the “Rust Belt” states, because of the heavy deindustrialisation and economic decline they have experienced since the 1980s, they were systematically assaulted by CA’s ‘secretive psychometric approach’ (Wylie, 2019: 94), ensuring that the campaign promise of rising employment and reinvestment into industry was heard.
In summary, this instance of CA and SCL manipulating public opinion with social media data is not one in isolation and according to their website they have ‘participated’ in over 25 international political and electoral campaigns since 1994 (SCL Group). Which underlines the fundamental problem that the BD paradigm poses to modern democracy. Although CA currently find themselves under investigation from both US and UK governments, which is a promising step, it is apparent that this new social landscape is barely compatible with our current systems. We are in dire need of privacy reform and communicative restructuring because ‘democracy deserves better’ (O’Neil, C. 2016: 218).
Comscore. ‘Client Insights – UK Digital Market Overview, Q3.’ (December 3, 2019)Fenton, N. ‘Digital, Political, Radical.’ (2015: 350)Ito, M. ‘Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.’ (2013)Langlois, G. ‘Meaning in the Age of Social Media.’ (2014: 170-172) Palgrave Macmillan.Lindgreen, S. ‘Digital, Media & Society.’ (2017: 39) Sage Publications.Lovink, G. ‘Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Cultures’ (2016: 5-166)Nye, J. ‘Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.’ (1990)O’Neil, C. ‘Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.’ (2016: 218)SCL Group. ‘SCL Group – Home.’ www.scl.cc Wylie, C. ‘Mindfuck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World.’ (2019: 95-103)