Tag Archives: corruption

The #poliecon of Social Media and Surveillance: They are watching you watch others.

 

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Layered surveillance through mass media. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

I suppose I should begin with a (very) brief introduction to the study of political economy (from the novice perspective) and then draw out its many connections to how we exchange and produce (big)data through our use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). As far as the development of poliecon in the social sciences is concerned—we begin with Hegel and Marx/Engels. So prepare your head for a quick review of the history of humanity. Ready? Go!

Hegel developed the philosophical concept of dialectics in history. He idealized history as the production of knowledge (thesis) that was then challenged by another form of knowledge (antithesis) and through conflict and debate formed a new body of knowledge (thesis). Dialectics would continue to cycle like this in a back and forth tension between bodies of knowledge until we reached the pinnacle of all knowledge—the perfect society. The notion of a “perfect society” is very well challenged in our era of academic thought. However, this inspired Karl Marx to (dialectically) approach the development of historical materialist methodology which featured dialectic thought in a more empirical fashion (the development of these thoughts led to a fissure in academic thought between the idealists (Hegelian) and the materialists (Marxist).

Karl Marx grounded his research into the development and history of capital (and capitalism). Through his empirical studies he theorized that the mode of production was the foundation of (just about) everything in society. This was the material base from which the superstructure arises. The superstructure is the heterogeneous masses of ideological thought (politics, law, social relations, etc.). It is from the superstructure, which is coordinated by the mode of production (and some argue, mode of exchange), that we get the (unstable and constantly changing) understanding of value. Furthermore, if the mode of production were to change (as it is certainly done in this case), the superstructure would change, along with the meaning of social relations and formations.  It is from this conception of value, as understood by political economy, that I want to spring from to understand how we exchange (big)data through the use of social media. I will use Facebook as the overarching example, because at this point, we all have an intimate knowledge of Facebook. Also, Facebook owns other social media platforms (such as Instagram). It is certainly the current largest social network site.

In order for the entire architecture (both physically and digitally) of Facebook (and other forms of social media) to exist there needs to be value generated for information (big data). Facebook is a capitalistic enterprise that seeks to generate profit from such information. Because of this, Facebook works to proliferate and expand its user base.  The more Facebook’s user base proliferates, the more data they have to draw from.  I am going to highlight that Facebook achieves all of this through two fundamental forms of surveillance: participatory surveillance and capital surveillance.

First value must be generated. Value is generated for big data through its production and consumption. Before we can understand how value is created we need to talk about the prosumer. In the context of Facebook, the user produces and consumes the user-generated content and metadata that is then used as big data in aggregate. So essentially, producer and consumer are collapsed into the user prosumer (Cohen 2008:7). Value is generated because the fruits of the prosumer—data through biography, interaction, and Internet usage—are sold to advertisers who then feed it back into the system as targeted advertisements. According to Fuchs (2012), the prosumer is packaged, commodified and sold (146).

Fuchs observes,

“Facebook prosumers are double objects of commodification. They are first commodified by corporate platform operators, who sell them to advertising clients, and this results, second, in an intensified exposure to commodity logic. They are permanently exposed to commodity propaganda presented by advertisements while they are online. Most online time is advertisement time” (146).

This is obviously problematic. I think it is also pretty important that we acknowledge that the role of prosumer positions the Facebook user as a free labour commodity. Cohen (2008) asserts, “Web 2.0 models depend on the audience producing the content, thus requiring an approach that can account for the labour involved in the production of 2.0 content, which can be understood as information, social networks, relationships, and affect” (8). In this process of production, Facebook repackages user-generated content and sells the data to generate intense profits (in the billions range). The user prosumer remains unpaid in this exchange. Interestingly enough, through my own work in qualitative research, those who participated in my research believed that use of Facebook’s services qualified as a fair exchange for their data. I think an apt thread of thinking that could resolve these problems, van Djick (2012) observes, “Connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144). With this noted, I would like to focus on the production, consumption and monetization of user-generated content.

The content produced and consumed by the user prosumer is organized through two layers of surveillance. The first layer of surveillance, is participatory surveillance. Albrechtslund (2008), in trying to address the overwhelming dystopic metaphors implicit in the discourse and study of surveillance, he explains that use of hierarchical models of surveillance (like the big brother and panopticon) obscures important sociological processes that occur through the mediation of social media (8).  Furthermore, it treats users as passive agents, unable to resist the oppressive and repressive forces of the Big Brother.  He attempts to frame surveillance as a mutual, horizontal process that empowers users through the sharing of information and creation of elaborate autobiographies. Albrechtslund elaborates that social media offer, “new ways of constructing identity, meeting friends and colleagues, as well as socializing with strangers” (8). In this understanding of social media, the subject is not a passive agent under the oppressive gaze of big brother, but an active subject pursuing empowerment. Furthermore, Albrechtslund frames user-generated content specifically as sharing, not trading. However, in doing this, he ignores that these social media platforms are constructed, shaped and owned by capitalist corporations seeking profit. This is where the second layer of surveillance becomes important—capital surveillance.

During the process of the user prosumer engaging in participatory surveillance, or in other words producing and consuming user-generated content that they share with others, the capitalist captures that data and repackages it to be sold to advertisers. They do this through complicated algorithmic computer software which than stores the data in a large architecture of computer hardware, optic wires, and servers. The fruits that become available through participatory surveillance are commodified (along with the prosumers) and then traded to produce capital. This layer, the hierarchical and oppressive model of surveillance, organizes and shapes how user prosumers generate content. Thus van Djick’s concept of the double logic of connectivity is realized. What is problematic here is that much of capital surveillance is rendered opaque or invisible to the user—who only sees the participatory aspects and the advertisements (repackaged user-generated content).  Also problematic, is that this entire process is automated–though this note will not be taken up in this article.

It is important to note that participatory surveillance is not typically a capitalist endeavour. Cohen writes, “The labour performed on sites like Facebook is not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause and effect fashion… (it is) simply an answer to the economic needs of capital” (17). So where the user prosumer “shares” their production of user-generated content, the capitalist “trades” it. These are two interconnected, though fundamentally different, processes. We, the user prosumers, don’t often recognized the capital forms of surveillance occurring, because we are so intimately involved in the participatory forms of surveillance. This, I believe, is the root to our apathy about the surveillance issues surrounding social media like Facebook. What needs to be devised next is how we can package these theories in a popular form and export them to those who are shaped by these forms of exploitative commodification. It is the work of social scientists to understand, and then to shape, the world around them.

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Big brother is watching you watch others. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

Post-script:

Another lesson we should take from this is that not all surveillance is evil.  We do not live in an inescapable dystopian society.  To say this, we obscure a lot of actual practices of surveillance that are beneficial.  We also render the notion of resistance as a practice in futility.  Surveillance is a neutral phenomenon that is used for better or worse by a plethora of different corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, activists, and regular everyday people.  But in saying this, we can’t ignore the potential abuse and exploitation that may come from the use of surveillance practices to increase the flow of Capital.


REFERENCES:

Albrechtslund, Anders. 2008. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13(3). Retrieved Oct 9, 2015 (http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949).

Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.

van Dijck, José. 2012. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19(2):141-155.

Fuchs, Christian. 2012. “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook”. Television & New Media 13(2):139-159.

 

Surveillance Studies Centre Seminar Series Presents…

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If you are in Kingston, ON or have a way to get here, this is definitly a seminar that is worth checking out.

Info below from the Surveillance Studies Centre event page:

http://www.sscqueens.org/news/ssc-special-guest-speaker-nadera-shalhoub-kevorkian


 

‘Militarized Surveillance and Palestinian Childhood’

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 12:30-2:00pm

Jeffrey 234

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian

“Through an examination of the trapped condition of colonized childhood in historic Palestine, the presentation conceptualizes Palestinian childhood within a settler colonial framework and considers the particular and distinctly territorialized, spatial, and biopolitical relationships between state criminality and Palestinian childhood. The talk traces the ongoing targeting of Palestinian childhood through different geographical spaces and historical periods. Considering the fragmentation of Palestinian geographies— via borders, checkpoints, walls, settler violence and other militarized restrictions of movement — a spatio-temporal emphasis is key to understanding how the targeting of children and the maintenance of various punitive measures within spaces of exterminability serves colonial interests.

About the speaker: Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian is a longtime anti-violence, native Palestinian feminist activist and the director of the Gender Studies Program at Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa. Her research focuses on law, society and crimes of abuse of power. She studies the crime of femicide and other forms of gendered violence, crimes of abuse of power in settler colonial contexts, surveillance, securitization and social control, and trauma and recovery in militarized and colonized zones. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s most recent books are: Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear, Cambridge University Press, April 2015 and Militarization and Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East: The Palestinian Case Study, Cambridge University Press, 2010. She has published articles in multi-disciplinary fields including British Journal of Criminology, International Review of Victimology, Feminism and Psychology, Middle East Law and Governance, International Journal of Lifelong Education, American Behavioral Scientist Journal, Social Service Review, Violence Against Women, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy: An International Forum, Social Identities, Social Science and Medicine, Signs, Law & Society Review, and more. As a resident of the old city of Jerusalem, Shalhoub-Kevorkian works to end the inscription of power over Palestinian children’s lives, spaces of death, and women’s birthing bodies and lives.

Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian has been brought to Queen’s through the Principal’s Development Fund International Visitors Program.

This talk is co-presented by Sociology, Faculty of Law, Global Development Studies, and Gender Studies


 

Colombian “Shadow State”: The blending of public and private sectors in mass surveillance

Digital binary code on computer screen, pen pointing out "we're watching you" surveillance breach in red characters.
Adobe stock image

The deployment of surveillance in the 21st century digital (shit-show) of a society we live in carries some especially decentralized features. We can no longer look at the state as a central apparatus from where surveillance emerges and is conducted. And we also can’t assume that surveillance has shifted to a new center in the private industry. This “blurring of sectors” is one of the main trends in Canadian (and certainly, global) surveillance reported by Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Read this particular chapter of the report for free here. This is an interesting meditation on these important, and really complex, issues in light of the development of a “total” surveillance program in Colombia.

According to a report released by Privacy International –the Colombian state has, over the past few decades, constructed a vast surveillance net that borders on total surveillance. An apparatus that has, in fact, been used on political opponents, leftist Guerrillas, and activists in the past. This is what Vice News refers to as the “Shadow State”. A story that is shaping up to look like some sort of dystopian sci-fi. This could also be a case study in the dangers of unimpeded surveillance for state or private interest.

Let’s look at a quick recap of its development (according to Vice News)! In the 1990s, the Colombian state invested in a surveillance system called “Esperanza”. In sociology, there is this concept called surveillance creep which essentially means that once surveillance system is set up, it continues to grow and eventually take on tasks that were never its initial intention (Lyon 52). In the case of Esperanza, it was expanded over the next few decades until a new program was developed. PUMA was developed in 2007, and through surveillance creep was later upgraded to super-PUMA through a multimillion dollar investment. These systems now have the capacity to track and log phone calls and conversations to government servers to create profiles on all citizens. Much of this work is done without warrant or heed to the established laws governing intelligence agencies or state surveillance. For a much more detailed description of the story—visit the VICE article.

What I found interesting was the focus of the article on the centrality of the state government in the construction and implementation of their “shadow state”. They do discuss the private industry in the article. However, not mentioned is that there is likely to be a thin veil of separation between the involved capitalists and the state.

   “Surveillance is big money,” explained Rice. “If you sell people guns, they may come back for more guns someday, but if you sell surveillance, you immediately start providing customer support, IT services, and upgrades.”

VICE News.

To only focus on the use of surveillance to reproduce and safe guard state power is to ignore many of the other contributing factors and risky slopes that exist in these situations. One being, that a collection of private interest corporations are cashing in big time on the suffering and repression of an entire nation. Of course, this cash grab is obscured and made opaque by discourses of terrorism and crime. So not only is the state as a result becoming more powerful through draconian and cloak and dagger strategies—but a slurry of private corporation is also filling its coffers.

According to the VICE news article:

“The dozens of documents reviewed by Privacy International show that the Israeli companies Verint Systems and NICE Systems have been especially crucial in building Colombia’s electronic spying capabilities. Both have helped steadily expand the country’s “network” surveillance system, which uses a series of probes to latch on to Internet servers and collect data from 3G phone networks.”

These private corporations, I would speculate, also have access to the collected data in aggregate of an entire country’s population. The Transparent Lives report writes,

“The blurring between these agencies may be illustrated in many ways, but the effect of driving more surveillance is common to each case. Public and private bodies have different mandates and different modes of accountability, and personal data become vulnerable to misuse and abuse as the data streams flow in new directions.”

So even though abuse from the Colombian state is actually terrifying—there is at least, even if they are not always followed, a set of governing laws. Which is sometimes not the case of a private industry that is mandated to swing large profits. But the likely case seems that there is probably quite a lot of overlap between these surveillance corporations and the state interests.

It is increasingly important to see surveillance as a process that transcends traditional boundaries between public and private sectors. As these sectors, in an age of global capitalism are beginning to merge in many complicated ways.