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  • Spriha Mehrotra

An Epoch of Digital Dictatorship

Social Media has penetrated deep into our lives and is slowly turning into a necessity, rather than a choice. While the world battles a pandemic, our everyday functions have inadvertently shifted online, from work to education to entertainment and even markets. Everything operates on a capitalist set-up today, and capitalistic elements thrive on profit mongering and rapid consumerism which is a direct consequence of intense commodification drives. Quickly after computers and technology were brought into the mainstream and the internet was engineered, a wave of commodification of human labour hit the world.

With the rise of social media outlets like Orkut in the olden days, and then Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter and many more today, the private human experience, which remained well beyond the reach of this blind and mindless commodification, was targeted. The personal data of millions of people using these sites are now being traded to make targeted advertisements, to predict and influence their behaviour patterns to maximise the monetary benefits for the capitalists from their targeted sales. It is a system that runs on predictive algorithms and mathematical calculations of our psyche to sell us targeted advertisements based on our searches and clicks. Any conversation on Surveillance Capitalism is incomplete without the mention of Shoshana Zuboff, an American social psychologist and a professor at Harvard University, who has authored the book “The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism: A Fight For Human Future at the New Frontier of Power” who rightly says, “surveillance capitalists sell certainty to business customers who would like to know with certainty what we do. They want to know how we will behave to know how to best intervene in our behaviour.”

The situation this puts us in is alarming. Statistics and researches show that in 1986, 1% of the world’s information was digitised. In 2013, it was 98%. It wasn’t so rampant initially, but after the 2001 Dot-com Financial Crisis in the Silicon Valley there was a significant shift in the way the World Wide Web and the Internet would handle personal information and data resources. This shift is developed to become the giant nefarious corporate network – SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, the monetary barter of human behaviour for concentrating wealth, power and full control and predictability of the global free market.

This system works like an endless clockwork. The journey of your data, from your social media to the database of these platforms to corporate business shelves and back to your timeline in the form of an ad for a product that you may have searched for, or even just spoken of, is shockingly transparent yet equally confusing. Such transmission of your behaviour from one conglomerate to another is nothing short of eeriness, but there is no way out of it. It is not only about manipulating you into purchasing things and pushing you to thoughtless consumerism; it is also about capturing your most valuable asset: TIME.

The more time you spend on these sites, the more you interact and engage with a kind/genre of content and product ads, the more data they collect about your likes and dislikes, which is why the kind of advertisements you see become more inclusive of your current needs and preferences, and thus subliminally wire you to indulge in spending your money on the same.

This also plays into the concepts of Behavioural Economics, namely Libertarian Paternalism and the Nudge theories. It is an increasingly popular practice that is drilled into most legislative discussions and policies today. It implies influencing public behaviour and influencing their decision making by using positive reinforcements and suggestive indirect mechanisms. It is a powerful tool, but just like anything powerful, it can be used beneficially only if it is in the right hands. According to Nudge theorists, most notably Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the process of nudging includes creating and designing choices for people who encourage positive, helpful decisions. This is where the proponents of Hayekian Individualism and Contemporary Libertarians offer their arguments against these practices.

What about the individual and their free will? Don’t paternalistic tendencies hinder the discourse on civil rights and liberties under democratic machinery? Is Right to Privacy even legitimate in this case? Isn’t this another form of totalitarianism?

To answer these questions, we need to know what the surveillance capitalists think. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook that has WhatsApp and Instagram under their scope too says, “Privacy is no longer a social norm”, which at its core is problematic for two main reasons – a) People cannot expect privacy if they’re using these platforms and that they’re indirectly consenting for the sale of their data for commercial uses, and b) These organisations don’t feel morally obligated to offer privacy norms and regulations to their users and may indulge in further reinstating the claims of commodifying personal information for gains.

This can be understood if we look at classic cases like those of Cambridge Analytica using the personal data of millions of Facebook users for political advertising, the political ad campaigns that helped the Republicans win the 2016 US Elections with alleged Russian intervention. Another example is the current controversy around WhatsApp’s new privacy policy that allows Facebook to access much more personal user data than before. All this negates the democratic accessibility and usability of social media sites.

It is not truly totalitarianism that we are stuck in, but rather another form of it, one that seeks to study, analyse, predict, modify, control and monetise human behaviour on economic, social and political fronts and homogenise consumption patterns, political biases and the structuring systems that help diversify not only markets but societies and civilisations at large too. The term popularised for such an ideology is “instrumentarianism” whose bedrock is radical behaviourism. It tries to give primacy to human behaviour rather than human psychological states, which is exactly what Surveillance Capitalism has mastered and continues to pioneer. It is, though, imperative to note that radical behaviourism regards two things irrelevant in its beliefs, and those two things form the pillars of modern democracy – Freedom and Human Dignity (“Free will is but an illusion”). This narrative lies in the belief that all human actions result from direct conditioning and not free will.

Thus, is it valid to say we are in an age of digital dictatorship? To an extent, yes. There is an increasingly active discussion on this issue, and it is putting these sites on the forefront to justify their terms and conditions. It is a direct attack on how our freedoms, legal liberties and privacy are interpreted in free-market democracies. It is changing discourse on how we perceive the relevance and importance of our civil rights. The rhetoric and framework of mastering this way of economic dominance and manipulation have been facilitated mainly due to the lack of transparency from these conglomerates and corporations. The newfound demand for transparency isn’t as newfound as it seems to us, for it is essential in all liberal states to maintain these mechanisms in place. The constitution of such processes falters due to capitalist proprietors and their resultant economic creeds.

By Spriha Mehrotra

The featured image first appeared on Live Consultancy.


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