I left Facebook a few months ago.
Before I go on, and lest this post present itself as judgmental or implicitly condescending, I still use Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. The latter is particularly ironic, given it is owned by and presumably has many of the negative data-mining qualities of Facebook.
I haven’t wrested myself completely from the siren call of social media, but I’ve discovered I’m less and less interested in keeping up with it and increasingly skeptical of publishing to it. But quite apart from my fading interest, social media — if we can even call it that anymore — is quite at home in our data-hungry, late-capitalist age. That fact, combined with the big data alliances of the Trump administration, hint toward a terrifying precipice of surveillance-state capitalist tyranny that continues to erode the very institutions that might prevent it.
Monetizing the web
I love the web. It was and remains mostly open and relatively pure.
Sure, the web has become heavily monetized and data-mined in its own right, but compared to the militantly invasive, emphatically proprietary, and hedge-fund-infused social media giants, most of the web is a quaint yet tenaciously democratic medium. With a modicum of technical acumen and some patience, you can set up your own website and publish your ideas to the world, without relying on architecture specifically designed to monetize your presence. That’s still awesome.
But social media continues to push us toward consuming all of our content in their space and on their terms, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Medium, or the platforms they’ve already subsumed (i.e. Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Periscope, etc.).
There are many problems with these valuations, but perhaps the most concerning is that these companies have to grow forever. They can’t stay the same size or simply keep doing what they do so well. They have to continue to grow (at all costs) and find new avenues to generate returns on their “public” investments. For social media companies, that means (primarily) selling advertising and selling data — your data.
We all know this is happening, so I won’t belabor the point. But the risks are mounting regarding why and how that data is used.
Libertarians are all up in your Facebook
It’s wildly ironic that some of Trump’s staunchest Libertarian advisors and supporters happen to run, or be connected to, some of the most invasive big-data organizations in existence.
Robert Mercer. Steve Bannon. Peter Thiel.
Thiel, who was — famously — an early investor in Facebook and continues to sit on the Facebook board of directors, now runs Palantir, a $20 billion company that feeds its vast stockpile of data to the NSA, among many others. Thiel’s continuing connection to Facebook should be enough to betray Facebook as a benign social media platform, designed to help you share and connect with “friends”. It is unequivocally a data-mining platform, designed to inexorably harvest your data for profit.
Palantir is a reference to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which — as a huge fan of Tolkien — just pisses me off even more. But tellingly, in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a Palantir is an all-seeing stone, several of which have been co-opted by Sauron, the epitome of evil in Middle-earth.
So at least they got the reference right.
Meanwhile, Steve Bannon, Trump’s embattled, white nationalist, shit-spewing advisor served on the board of Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining firm heavily funded by another significant player in Trump’s successful White House bid: Robert Mercer.
I could certainly go on and on about Bannon, but Mercer’s influence (along with his daughter, Rebekah), though predominantly behind the scenes, is arguably more terrifying. He’s yet another Libertarian unapologetically eating away at your private data.
This is from the Guardian, detailing the Leave.eu effort to promote the Brexit campaign:
Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.
Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”
If you haven’t already, I recommend taking a look at just how intensively these assholes are harvesting your private data. The surveillance state was bad enough when we had a rational, sensible statesman in the White House, but the game has changed.
We now have a parasitic host of illegitimate government operatives whose own Libertarian ideology compels them to incinerate the protections the state affords its residents while simultaneously capitalizing on their new positions of power to remake the state in their image.
Facebook and Twitter, along with many of their offspring, were founded on the open web and ingeniously designed to facilitate social interaction and forge new communities. They remain nearly indispensable for those purposes. As we all know, they’ve even spawned revolutions.
But I’ve started to reconsider what I make available to these networks, and which networks I’m on. I’ve finally realized that the capitalist pressure to use my information in whatever way results in the highest profits is the inevitable outcome, and I’m losing trust in the institutions that would protect my privacy from the very interests that are now taking over those institutions.
This is not to suggest that Trump is the first to take advantage of pervasive data-mining; indeed it was during President Obama’s administration that we heard Edward Snowden’s revelations.
But the collusion between ultra-capitalist, big-data firms and the government has never been so overtly strong, and our acceptance of the very tools that lend themselves to this surveillance state appears to be increasing.
We must start asking ourselves if it’s worth it.