Tag Archives: Surveillance

Ford’s snitch site and the chilly climate of surveillance culture

In the past week the Ford administration has been increasing the political stakes around their discriminatory sex-ed repeal. In order to impose punitive measures to ensure compliance to their repeal, they rolled out a snitch site for parents to file complaints if they believe that their teachers aren’t following the newly reinstated 1998 sex-ed curriculum. In his statement to the press, he declared, “We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act”. The governments implementation of a snitch system is a blatant use of surveillance technology to punish teachers through a punitive use of citizen tattle tailing that will only lead to a divisive and chilly climate in Ontario politics.

This is highly significant, as invasive surveillance has become a cornerstone of contemporary society. Our media saturated lives have allowed for the development of a wider surveillance culture where being watched and being visible has become ingrained in our everyday lives. Ford’s decision to implement a Snitch Site is moving the bar of what we consider a normal quantity of surveillance, and we must actively resist the normalization of state-sponsored, punitive surveillance strategies.

The sex-ed repeal

The sex-ed repeal is among the Ford Nation’s more controversial political interventions into the lives of Ontario citizens. I’ve argued in The Conversation that Ford’s initiative to roll back to the fossilized, 1998 sex-ed curriculum is explicitly discriminatory against LGBTQ+ children and will make life incredibly difficult for queer kids who just want to live normal lives as they navigate their school lives.

The move to repeal sex-ed curriculum is a dog-whistle for cis- and hetero- sexism, meaning that the Ford government is enacting legislation to attack LGBTQ+ rights, while actively disguising their homophobic and transphobic motives with talk around “parent consultations”. This has allowed the Ford administration to roll back the curriculum with a promise of future modernization after consulting parents. Of course, the status of queer inclusion into the curriculum is unknown, but if we take a lesson from the state of populist style politics, queer folks are typically left behind or actively discriminated against. The 1998 curriculum was designed in a time before the Internet, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the various human rights changes that were designed to protect queer folks.

The snitch site, aptly named For the Parents is both an attempt to roll out a public consultation, as well as a surveillance mechanism to ensure compliance to the repeal. The Ford government makes no attempt to hide their motives, for any teacher who wishes to teach scientifically supported sex-ed curricula, Ford’s staffers are out for blood.

The chilly climate of surveillance culture

The Ford government ran on a neoliberal platform that seeks to treat our democratic process as a capitalist playground of top-down leadership strategies. Doug Ford is no stranger to using management strategies that belong in capitalist businesses to obfuscate democratic institutions and government transparency. This mentality is readily present in his attempts to strong arm his decision to cut down on democratically representative councillors in Toronto’s City Hall. As well as his attempts to lash out against government transparency by dodging the press. This was certainly the case when politically appointed staffers engaged in intentional applause to drown out questions from reporters at a press conference concerning an increase in funding for the Toronto police. When reporters pressed the staffers on why they were engaging in this behaviour, they scurried away to avoid answering.

The Ford government is pulling strategies out of the far-right playbook to engage in authoritarian practices in our Provincial political institutions. As Ford Nation becomes more comfortable flexing its muscles, the dangers of utilizing online surveillance systems radically increase.

The more state-sponsored, punitive surveillance practices become normalized in our wider social practices, the more we feed a chilly climate informed by deep fears and anxieties. In other words, it feeds into a wider culture of surveillance where, as sociologist David Lyon has observed, “[surveillance is] no longer merely something external that impinges on our lives. It is something that everyday citizens comply with — willingly and unwittingly, or not — negotiate, resist, engage with, and, in novel ways, even initiate and desire”. As surveillance culture becomes more entrenched in our everyday lives, we become increasingly comfortable with invasive forms of watching and policing.

The Ford snitch site relies on the ability for parents to issue complaints about the pedagogical strategies of teachers in the relative anonymity of the Government’s servers. As I found in my yet-to-be-published research on social behaviour in anonymous communities, the use folks ire as a form of disciplinary practice will likely only lead to false accusations, over-exaggerations, shit slinging, and a communicative environment punctuated with vitriol and bigotry. All the while it sets a climate of fear for teachers just trying to do their job and now having to do it under the omnipresent pretext of hostile parents snitching on them and putting their employment at risk.

When Ford won the Ontario provincial election with a majority government, it set in place a nightmare scenario for LGBTQ+ folks as the “Overton window” shifted to the political right. Ford’s landslide victory in Ontario politics broadcasted that homophobia and transphobia were once again supported by social and political institutions. This anti-queer mentality, coupled with the chilly climate of a wider surveillance culture, is threatening to send our communities back into hiding. We must not let that happen.

There is hope for resistance

The Ford governments quick and decisive actions to strike at the curriculum have left many, including myself, feeling hopeless in the face of an a right-wing partisan crusade against teaching children about consent, safer sex, and sexual and gender diversity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate hostile publics to resist public displays of discrimination and oppression that seek to lash out first and foremost at queer children and youth.

However, there has been an uplifting surge of resistance from folks in Ontario.

Not surprisingly, the sex-ed repeal will likely violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it directly discriminates against LGBTQ+ students by removing mentions of their existence from the curriculum. Following Ford’s decision to roll out the repeal in time for coming fall semester of school, there have been a handful of legal challenges. Earlier in August, six families led an effort to file complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to challenge the negative impacts the repeal will have on queer children. In the forefront of this legal challenge is an 11-year-old transgender student who is bravely standing up to the anti-queer political entities that seek to erase her identity and thus, stigmatize her existence. And more recently, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have moved to sue the Ford government, accusing the their efforts as being a “ham-fisted dog whistle of bigotry, of homophobia, dressed up in a consultation fix”.

And this is on top of active resistance from school boards and teachers across the province condemning the Ford government for playing politics with children and ignoring educational experts in favor of the social conservative, Ford Nation platform. More recently, teacher unions have come on the public record to declare that they will do what they can to protect teachers who defy the sex-ed repeal in the coming fall semester.

If you are as enraged by all of this as I am, there is something that you can do to actively resist the increasingly chilly climate set up by the Ford snitch site. Follow this link to the snitch site and lodge a complaint against the Ford administration using their own surveillance strategies against them. Either send a message of critique, your thoughts on why a robust sex-ed curriculum is widely beneficial to our youth, or straight up spam their systems so their punitive tactics will be rendered unmanageable.

We can protect educators in this province and their acts of resistance to the discriminatory imposition of fossilized, socially conservative pedagogical methods by flooding their servers with criticism. If enough of us send in complaints, they will be unable to process punitive action against teachers who defy their bigotry. And in doing this, we can support the LGBTQ+ children who will be most affected by this.

Share the snitch site with your friends across social media and encourage them to complain as well.

Also, happy pride week ❤


References

Lyon, David. 2017. “Surveillance culture: Engagement, exposure, and ethics in digital modernity,” International Journal of Communication, volume 11, pp. 813–831, at http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/5527.

The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence

This is the second post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans writers, advocates, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part one here: The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists.


CW: transmisogyny, harassment, suicide

After coming out of the closet as a trans woman, my ability to engage in public discussions as a writer radically shifted. My new identity substantially intensified the stakes of publishing critical ideas as I was forced to come up against anti-trans hate groups on the left and the right.

I mustered up the courage to transition a few weeks before the Lindsay Shepherd controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University which would rapidly become a rallying cry for the far-right, who manipulated arguments in support of free speech to dog whistle white supremacy and (trans)misogyny across the Canadian mediascape. I wrote an article for Vice Canada called For Trans Folks, Free Speech Can Be Silencing to address how open debates about trans and non-binary pronouns often dehumanize and silence trans students in undergraduate classes. I mean, imagine being made to debate your own existence in a classroom setting!

This was the first time I had an encounter with the trolly hate group known as Kiwi Farms. I remember getting a Google notification not long after I published my Vice article informing me that my name had been mentioned on the Internet. I was blissfully unaware of doxxing groups before checking my gmail account that day and I was appalled by their cruelty. I had been doxxed, and I felt violated and vulnerable in the visibility and exposure afforded to me by the Internet.

Along with bemoaning that social justice warriors (SJWs) who wanted nuanced discussions about free speech were somehow ushering in a dark era of Orwellian or Huxley style totalitarianism, Kiwi Farm trolls also attacked me based on my appearance and my gender.

One post read, “If accommodating the 0.1% or so of people who are trannies involves destroying free speech for everyone else, fuck trannies”.

Another followed up, “I thought he just kind of an ugly girl, not a troon”.

This was my first time getting doxxed. As I mentioned in the previous article in this series, doxxing involves active lateral surveillance and intelligence techniques used by a person or group to scour the Internet for any publicly available information that is collected into rough dossiers and posted to cyberspace to engage in punitive “name and shame” tactics. Doxxing is the primary strategy in the  DIY policing toolkit, and it’s widely used within the Kiwi Farms community.

In fact, I will likely get doxxed again for mentioning my experiences with Kiwi Farms as they thrive on negative press. It took me a while to decide whether or not I should tell this story as it will give these trolls more ammunition to shoot back at me. But these assholes need to be challenged, and silence, I feel, is no longer an option.

Another user wrote, “They do it to escape their insecurity or their mistakes from their male self. Unfortunately, the Internet never forgets, nor does their body, which is male”.

They’re right, the Internet never forgets. Trolls and bigots are able to exploit the visibility and ubiquitous presence provided to us by our reliance on social media platforms and near constant connection to the Internet. Kiwi Farms is a prime example of DIY policing in that it has allowed for home brewed vigilantes to play both spy and police officer by weaponizing our visibility to threaten us into silence. It’s also worth noting that they also take joy in attacking people with disabilities and plus size women.

Visibility and ubiquitous presence

Though folks engage in social media to varying degrees, it is safe to say that most of us spend a great deal of time producing and consuming user-generated content. Many of us use social media like Facebook and Twitter to build online social identities and we curate those accounts to give off impressions of who we are. Social media platforms have become synonymous with communication in the contemporary Western world, and this has massive consequences.

Sociologist danah boyd offers us a useful concept to think about our engagement with social media platforms. She draws attention to how social media become “mediated publics” where folks communicate through technologies that shape (or mediate) our interconnections with each other. In line with physical public spaces, mediated publics allow for people to interact with each other, but these interactions are augmented by features unique to cyberspace.

Navigating mediated publics are characterized by persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. In other words, interactions in mediated publics endure through time, are easily searchable, can be copied outside of its original context, and are seen by an unknowable number of strangers.

For instance, Kiwi Farms homed in on embarrassing thoughts that I posted to Reddit during a time where I was confused and questioning my gender. Though I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, I posted these thoughts several years ago without foresight that they would be found and used to embarrass me years later. The details that I posted on a trans subreddit were eventually archived, copied by trolls, removed from their original context, and used in a doxx meant to embarrass me in a public full of hostile strangers.

Because social media platforms have become a constant staple in how we communicate, our presence in mediated publics become ubiquitous. We are exposed to publics that might seem harmless, but can quickly dissolve in a cacophony of vitriolic bullshit.

As we navigate mediate publics, overtime we produce substantial social exhaust. This is a form of seemingly innocent enduring data that can be brought together in countless ways and to varying effects. Surveillance scholar Daniel Trottier, notes, “No single act seems risky or malicious, but when taken together overtime, maintaining an online presence can have damaging consequences”. It is this social exhaust, the fragments of a person’s digital identity, that become the weapons of DIY gender police.

Doxxing as political violence

As I mentioned in the first article in this series, activists, scholars, and journalists often focus on the dangers of state-level hierarchical surveillance while neglecting the impact of lateral surveillance practices used in everyday life by everyday people. This is often done in a way that obscures or obfuscates attention to the violences involved in lateral surveillance practices. For a lot of folks, the damaging impacts of DIY gender policing are opaque, and thus, rarely discussed outside of the marginalized groups who face the blunt of such tactics.

Earlier this summer a trans game developer named Chole Segal ended her life after substantial harassment from trolls and doxxers over Kiwi Farms. Though Segal’s tormentors weren’t the sole cause of her dying by suicide, they played a terrible role, and this marks some of the more extreme consequences of doxxing in the trans community.

Gay Star News reported, “Kiwi Farms linked to her death. On the thread there was no regret, only misgendering and mocking”.

Doxxing in inherently violent in that it violates the assumed privacy of a person by collecting disparate forms of social exhaust given off by a lifetime using social media in order to cause a person personal damage.

While speaking about surveillance, Fuchs and Trottier observe, “Surveillance gathers data about humans in order to exert actual or potential direct, structural, or cultural violence against individuals or groups. The violence involved in surveillance either operates as acutal violence or as the threat of violence in order to discipline human behavior”. Doxxing isn’t a mundane or inconsequential act, it is an intentional act of violence that is meant to do harm to people.

The communities that engage in DIY policing are accountable to no one but themselves, which sets them apart from state agencies who are at least marginally tied to a legal system. There are few ways that a person can seek justice after being victimized by anonymous and pseudonymous vigilantes who enact extreme forms of discriminatory violence.

It is important that we begin to address these issues in ways that will provide us with tools and strategies to resist DIY gender policing, ubiquitous presence, and (trans)misogynistic violence. Furthermore, we need to strategize ways of building tighter communities of support over cyberspace, as well as queer, feminist security practices that we can utilize to protect ourselves from forms of weaponized visibility. In the next addition to this series, I will explore how far-right groups use media manipulation and forms of digilantism to actively work towards the marginalization of people of color, LGBTQ folks, and women.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

boyd, d. (2007). Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What? Knowledge Tree 13. https://www.danah.org/papers/KnowledgeTree.pdf.

Fuchs, C., and D. Trottier. (2015). Towards a theoretical model of social media surveillance in contemporary society. Communications 40(1): 113-135.

Trottier, D. (2017). Digital Vigilantism as Weaponisation of Visibility. Philosophy and Technology 30, 55-72. https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1007/s13347-016-0216-4.

The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists

This is the first post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans activists, writers, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part two here: The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence.


Part one: DIY Gender Policing

To be transgender is to be exposed to constant surveillance. Much of the scholarly work exploring the surveillance of trans folks has been fixated on hierarchical forms of watching conducted by state, carceral, and medical institutions. These institutions spy into the everyday lives of folks at various stages of their transition. This form of institutional watching is often rolled out by various experts who act as gate keepers to accessing basic forms of medical treatment and funded aid. Many of these experts are cisgender, heterosexual doctors, psychologists and state bureaucrats who claim knowledge of transgender issues without having ever experienced it.

As Julia Serano illustrates in her book Whipping Girl,  these forms of expert intervention gives way to a system premised on ensuring an “authentic” transition (i.e. informed by cisgender expectations) that lead trans folks to overcompensate their gender performance (like, 120% femme) to convince the expert that they are indeed transgender just to get access to medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Trans folks are exposed to a profound amount of suspicion ranging anywhere from police and prison guards to friends and family. This suspicion could be as banal as an extra layer of scrutiny when you present your ID card to a liqueur store employee or as extraordinary as rousing suspicion at the border when crossing through airport security. There is an overwhelming sense that a trans person must constantly prove their transness while they are exposed to invasive watching, and if this is not done properly, they can be denied access to important social and medical resources.

A recent example, as reported by journalist Katelyn Burns, is the spike in US government officials revoking passports from trans folks and offloading sometimes extra-legal bureaucratic weight on identity changes.

Though it is important to have conversations about these forms of institutional surveillance, oftentimes these conversations happen in ways that obscure other forms of surveillance which have a great deal of impact on trans folks. Oftentimes, the most impactful forms of surveillance that we face is the surveillance that comes from our friends, family, and peers, and even worse, from Internet trolls, trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), and far-right bigots.

Lateral surveillance

This is what the sociologist Andrejevic calls lateral surveillance: “not the top-down monitoring of employees by employers, citizens by the state, but rather the peer-to-peer surveillance of spouses, friends, and relatives.” The use of lateral surveillance in everyday life relies on the hyper-visibility of a networked social media culture where we are all willingly tethered to various social media platforms where we share intimate details of our private lives. These digital publics allow us to post user-generated content for other users to browse through and has led to the normalization of watching each other.

Though I would argue that being constantly watched by friends, family, and peers does have a disciplining effect on people (i.e., you are more likely to act according to societal norms if you’re aware that you’re being watched), that is not what I am interested in here. I am interested in how lateral surveillance can be taken up by trolls and TERFs as a form of political violence that deeply impacts the trans community.

This is often done through doxxing which is commonly defined as the collection of private, identifiable information and its subsequent publication online. It is usually used in harassment campaigns where the person being doxxed receives a slurry of death threats, harassment, and abuse. For a lot of folks, doxxing is limited to actual names, home addresses, and phone numbers. However, I think it’s necessary to expand its definition to include the collection of publicly available information about and by a victim throughout the Internet.

Doxxing as a political violence

As a trans person involved in the public sphere through activism and writing, I’ve been doxxed several times for expressing important issues in the trans community. What caught me off-guard was the fact that all three times I was doxxed, a profound amount of information about my browsing and Internet history was scooped up into amateur  dossiers that were subsequently posted to forum boards. Literally, a person (or a group) spent an enormous amount of time and energy scrutinizing my life in order to cause me embarrassment, shame, and to ultimately silence my dissent. This has become a common practice across the political spectrum.

I’ve been working on a concept called do-it-yourself (DIY) policing, a form of digital vigilantism, practiced in left and right digital communities, that harness and weaponize the ubiquitous visibility afforded to us by our constant need for social media attention. The Internet, and the mobile technologies that tether us to each other, allow for the most inexperienced watchers to take on intelligence techniques to interrogate the lives of the people around them by collecting user-generated content that victims have produced over the media they used throughout their life.

It’s pretty damn awful.

In practicing DIY policing, digital vigilantes take on the punitive role of state policing in order to dole out forms of punishment and take justice into their own hands. They conduct intelligence work, google social media posts, plunder public records, build dossiers of potentially embarrassing information, and post those dossiers to their forum boards to encourage their members to harass, intimidate, assault, and dehumanize their victims.

Justice, of course, is entirely relative to the political and cultural orientation of the people orchestrating the doxx. For an instance, antifa groups often use DIY policing in order to doxx nazis and white supremacists to cause embarrassment, public shaming, and loss of work and social connections. The goal behind this form of political violence is to remove their capacity to organize against marginalized communities. This form of DIY policing can seem entirely acceptable as the groups being targeted are literally attacking marginalized folks for merely existing. It can be a form of collective self-defence in the absence of protection from state intelligence and policing agencies.

What I am especially interested in exploring in the next few blog posts I will be writing is how anti-trans groups have taken up DIY policing to embarrass, silence, and intimidate trans activists, writers, and scholars who engage in publicly facing advocacy. DIY policing, in this context, is used as a form of political violence to disrupt the so-called “transgender agenda” put forward by “social justice warriors (SJWs)”. What these vigilantes are working against are gains and protections won for trans rights via the often difficult and tumultuous work of activists engaged in protest and lobbying. They are working to actively marginalize us from public participation and lobbying to have us downgraded to second class citizens.

In more extreme circumstances, these groups want trans folks to disappear from what they consider their corporeal and digital spaces.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

Andrejevic, M. (2005). The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk, and Governance. Surveillance & Society 2(4), 479-497.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.

 

The Case of Media Manipulation and the CSIS Agenda

CSIS report on media disinformation conflates activists with conspiracy theorists

Accusations of fake news across the political spectrum have transformed a very concerning issue into a weapon of delegitimization. A recent report published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) titled Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation have conflated anti-globalization activists, who oppose military intervention, environmental destruction and global labour exploitation with conspiracy theorists and “foreign nationals” in the sharing of disinformation.

The report, which emerged out of a workshop organized by CSIS for the purposes of academic outreach, reflects a common attitude that state security and intelligence agencies have towards social and environmental justice activists—that of flippant dismissal and demonization. Though the spy agency claims that this report does not reflect an official position, it does reveal some logics underlying the surveillance of political activists. The report had obscured any of the workshops participants or the reports authors under the Chatham House Rule.

The immense popularity of social media and its omnipresence in how we communicate and share information has transformed the social and political landscape in ways that are only now being unveiled.

As a controversial experiment conducted by psychologists has demonstrated, people’s emotions can be remotely shaped through computer algorithms over social media platforms. Called “moral contagion,” psychologists working with Facebook secretly manipulated the news feeds of close to 700 000 Facebook users and silently influenced how they express emotions online. The idea of mass manipulation has recently overtaken the news cycle with the Cambridge Analytica leaks, revealing the role of socially hacking user’s political sensibilities to aid Trump’s election win. Clearly, there is a case for concern with how social media landscapes can be used as tools of surveillance and manipulation, this is especially concerning when groups use a combination of bots, social media exploits, and fake news to manipulate people on mass for political gain.

Edward Snowden aptly framed the situation in a recent tweet, “Business that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as “surveillance companies.” Their rebranding as “social media” it the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense”. In other words, we’ve been duped. The tools we use to organize our social life are being used against us for profit, surveillance, and policing.

In the CSIS report, the authors collapse any distinction between activists, conspiracy theorists, and hostile foreign nationals into the category of “independent emergent activists” who are understood as “agents of disinformation”. This report asserts that activists distrustful of Western governments engage in the amplification of conspiracy theorists from the political left and right and are susceptible to being hijacked by foreign state disinformation organizations.

Instead of providing a nuanced approach to understanding emerging digital threats in our social media landscape, the report conflates the political lefts opposition to violent military interventions and the exploitation of the global south to online conspiracy theories. There is a big difference between asserting that foreign nationals are able to influence how activists share news stories and activists also being implicit in producing disinformation.

Political and military violence overseas are hardly half baked conspiracies, for an instance, there have been legitimate concerns with unceremonious killing of innocent civilians overseas via US drone strikes. According to an investigation run by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a staggering 4,737 strikes to date, there have been between 737-1,551 civilians killed and barely any media coverage. Opposition to such violence inflicted by the Western World through the “war on terror” isn’t merely ideological activist “propaganda”, it is the expression of legitimate concerns that non-Western human life can so easily be rendered disposable by Western nation-states.

CSIS has muddied the water of the very issues it sought to address. At best, it provides vague and ambiguous background information that is unable to distinguish between activists and trolls. At worse, they have contributed to their own campaign of misinformation by not providing sober nuances of complex issues in social and environmental justice.

This is not surprising. It’s within the interests of Canadian state security and intelligence agencies to slander and dismantle the legitimacy of claims from activists. Both CSIS and the RCMP have a long history of spying on activists who are viewed as a threat to either the government or “critical infrastructure.”

With that said we can’t minimize the impacts of disinformation and fake news on our media landscape. These concerns signal the emergence of forms of media manipulation that can be deployed on mass while targeting an individual’s specific tastes and dispositions.

According to a report published by the Data & Society Research Institute, there is still no legal or political consensus on a definition for fake news or how to approach the issue. There are also concerns around the question of who gets to draw the distinctions around what is true and false, acceptable or propaganda. They offer a nuanced approach to understanding the context from which fake news emerges, and how we might collectively approach mediating its negative impacts. And most importantly, the do so in a way that is careful not to throw activists under the bus.

As the report observes, “With ‘fake news,’ the risk is not necessarily that it will overtake real news, but that democracy itself might drown in information.” If we are to approach this issue, we need to be careful not to fall into a state policing bias that privileges security concerns over the ability to engage in political dissent, whistleblowing, and holding the power to account.

The Mythology of Pokémon Go: Surveillance, Big Data, and a Pretty Sweet Game

Pokémon Go is lulling the world in to a humungous augmented distraction. A distraction that is covering up some pretty intense politics. It is almost as if we stepped into Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One—where distraction through virtual reality meets the war between anonymity and surveillance.

PokemonGo3
Artist: Dani Diez. You can find more of Dani’s work at www.instagram.com/mrdanidiez/

It has been well publicized that this new app, of which is fueling a Pokemania (a nostalgic resurgence of interest in Pokémon every time a new rendition of the game is released), has some rather arbitrary and invasive access to your mobile phones data—particularly, unhinged access to your Google account and other features of your mobile device.

What is Pokémon Go? This almost seems pointless now, seeing the popularity of the game—but for those of you who have not tuned in to the pokemania. Pokémon was a TV show released in the late 90s, which became dream fuel for a generation of children and young adults. It featured a young boy, Ash Ketchum, who embarked on a Journey to capture Pokémon in a technology known as the “pokeball” through the direction of the Professor (A man who studies Pokémon). After the Pokémon is caught, the young boy (and the thousands of other Pokémon trainers) would aspire to train it to battle other Pokémon.

Shortly after the show caught on, Nintendo released Pokémon Red and Blue for the Gameboy Colour. These games became an absolute hit. I remember walking to school with my eyes glued to my little pixelated screen—traversing over roads and dodging cars while battling with Pokémon and trading them with my other schoolyard peers. The games slogan repeating through my cranial, “Gotta Catch Them All”.

Nintendo continued to release Pokémon games designed for their various game platforms up until present. Each successive game included an obsessive and nostalgic excitement that took over the gaming community. Or anyone who had grown up playing Pokemon Red and Blue, as well as collecting the Pokemon cards.

Pokémon Go is a game that can be played on a mobile smart phone that uses geolocational data and mapping technologies that turn the phone into a lens peering into the Pokémon world.  Through the interface of your mobile device, you can catch Pokémon wandering the “real” world, battle through gyms, and find items that will aid your journey. It augments the world around the user so that everything and everywhere becomes a part of the game.

Just like its predessor, a game known as Ingress, many of the geo features in the game were set up around important places: art exhibits, cultural or historical sites, and parks. Following the maps would lead you through a productive tour of a cities geographical culture.

I want to explore the obsessive and nostalgic excitement through a techno-socio-cultural lens. I will unpack this critique into three parts: (1) the sociology of privacy, (2) Big data and algorithmic surveillance, and (3) the culture of nostalgia and the digital sublime.

Before I continue with this post—I want to assert that it is not an all-in-all terrible, megalomaniac, Big Brother type game. Pokémon Go is enabling new ways for people to engage in the social world. Check out this sociological blog post exploring just that. However, it would be silly to not apply a critical perspective to this.

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Taken from Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/wokemon/?fref=ts

There are some restrictions I’d like to apply to my analysis: (1) Pokémon Go is not an immature or irrelevant activity, millions of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are playing it—meaning it has a ton of significance. As well as, (2) The people playing Pokémon Go are not zombies or passive consumers, they are very intentional and unpredictable social actors that have the ability to understand their situation.

Sociology of Privacy

One thing that boggles the minds of surveillance studies scholars is how the vast population of people using social media and mobile applications do not care about invasive surveillance embedded in everything they use.

In my own interviews of Facebook users in 2014, many of my participants claimed, “I have nothing to hide”. A pervasive mentality that enables big corporate and governmental entities to gain access and control to large swaths of data. This nonchalant attitude towards surveillance allows for massive ground in the dismantling of our rights to privacy. Though such an attitude is not surprising, as the entire ecosystem of social media is set up to surveil.

David Lyon, in his book “Surveillance After Snowden”, asserts that privacy is generally seen as a natural and democratic right that should be afforded to all citizens—but admits that a problem lay in that informational privacy is not as valued as bodily or territorial privacy. Even if information, data, and metadata are much more revealing than the both bodily and territorial surveillance.

Lyon notes three important points about privacy that are all very relevant to the current epidemic of pokemania: 1) the collecting of information has now been directly connected to risk mitigation and national security, implying that we are not safe unless we are surveilled. 2) Everyone is now a target of mass surveillance, not just the criminal. 3) Data collected through mass surveillance is made to create profiles of people—these may be completely inaccurate depending on the data collected, but you will never know the difference.

I would like to add a fourth. How can the data be used to swing massive profits? The corporation Niantic, creators of Ingress and Pokémon Go, use their privacy policies to legitimate “sharing” (sic: selling) of data with governments and third party groups. Government surveillance is often the focus of criticism. However, capitalist corporations are not often held accountable to ethical practices. Who is selling this data? Who is buying this data? And what is this monetized data being used for?

As Lyon asserts, Privacy is not about individual concerns—it is important socially and politically for a well-balanced democracy. Edward Snowden has been known to say, “It’s not really about surveillance, it’s about democracy”. While we continue to allow powerful groups to chip away at our privacy for entertainment, we literally give up our ability to criticize and challenge injustice.

Snowden reminds us that when we give up our democracy to the control room—there is zero accountability, zero transparency, and decisions are made without any democratic process.

So while we are distracted trying to catch a Snorlax at the park, we are giving away more and more of our lives to mysterious and complicated groups that want nothing but large profits and control. For a much more scathing review of this, see this blog post on surveillance and Pokémon.

Big Data and Algorithms

So what about the data. What is big data? First off, it’s all the craze right now. As data scientists, social scientists, policy makers, and business gurus scramble to understand how to use, abuse, and criticise such a thing. Big data is consistent of two large disciplines—statistics and computer science. It is the collection and analysis of unthinkably large amounts of aggregated data that is collected and analyzed largely by computer software and algorithms.

Boyd and Crawford (2012) offer a much more precise definition. They assert that Big Data is a “cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon” that can be broken into three interconnected features:

  1. Technology – Computer science, large servers, and complicated algorithms.
  2. Analysis – Using large data-sets compiled from technological techniques to create social, political, cultural and legal claims.
  3. Mythology – Widespread belief of the power of Big Data to offer a superior knowledge that carries immense predictive value.

The big problem that remains is how to find, generate, and collect all of this data? In terms of social media and video games much of this has to do with offering a “free” service to consumers who take the role of the “prosumer”. The prosumer is a social actor that both produces and consumes the commodity they are “paying” for.

In terms of social media (like Facebook), while users interact with each other, they are producing affective or emotional data through liking things, sharing things, and discussing things, that are then collected by algorithms and fed back into the system through targeting advertisements. The user is implicit in both the production and consumption of that data.

The user is given free access to the social media platform, however, they pay for it through giving the platform a transparent window into their lives that is than monetized and sold for large profits. People’s reactions to this form of surveillance are variant: some people offer scathing criticisms, others don’t give two shits, and some act a little more cautious.

Why is this important for Pokémon Go? Because you trade your data and privacy for access to what Pokémon Go has to offer. It is incredibly clever of think tanks in Niantic—using the nostalgic Pokemania to usher users into consenting to ridiculous surveillance techniques.

It gets worse. As Ashley Feinberg from Gawker identified, the people responsible for Niantic have some shady connections to the international intelligence community. Causing some in the surveillance studies field to fear that Pokémon might just be an international intelligence conspiracy (It sounds crazy—but it makes complete sense).

David Murakami Wood coined to the concept of “vanishing surveillance”. This is a phenomenon, intentional and unintentional, that allows surveillance capacities in devices to fade into the background. Resulting in users not being aware, or at least completely aware, that they are being watched. Pokémon Go, an innocent video game that is enabling new ways of being social in public, becomes an invisible surveillance device that may have international and interpersonal consequences. And it is the Pokémon themselves that allow for the surveillance to vanish from sight and mind.

A Culture of Nostalgia

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So what drives people to consent to all of this? What kinds of cultural patterns allow and shape us to an almost fanatical state when a Pokémon game is released?

The first factor within the culture of Pokémon is its appeal to nostalgia. Jared Miracle, in a blog post on The Geek Anthropologist, talks about the power of nostalgia. It taps into the childhoods of an entire generation—it even moves outside the obscure boundaries of gamer culture into the larger pop cultural context. It wasn’t only geeks that played Pokémon. It was just about everyone. This might provide an explanation to why so many people are wandering around with their cell phones before them (I’ve seen them wandering around Queen’s campus today, while I was also wandering around).

However, it is not all about nostalgia. I believe that the nostalgia plays a role in a bigger process of the digital sublime and the mythologizing of the power of media.

What is a mythology? According to Vincent Mosco, in his book The Digital Sublime, defines myth as, “stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life”. This is a form of reality that represent how people see the world from the every-day-life perspective.

Myths are also implicit in power. “’Myth’ is not merely an anthropological term that one might equate with human values. It is also a political term that inflects human values with ideology… Myths sustain themselves when they are embraced by power, as when legitimate figures… tell them and, in doing so, keep them alive”.

These myths, along with nostalgia for Pokémon paraphernalia, generate the digital sublime. A phenomenon that has us go head over heals for new technology. The mythologies that support it can be positive or negative.

Positive mythologies might sound a little like this: “Pokémon Go is allowing us to leave our homes and experience the world! We meet new people and we are empowered by new ways of interacting with each other. Hurrah!”.

Negative Mythologies are also important: “Pokémon Go is creating a generation of zombies. People are wasting their time catching those stupid Pokémon. They are blindly and dangerously wandering around, falling off cliffs, and invading private property. Damn those immature assholes”.

Both of these mythologies cross over each other to colour the experiences of those who play and those who watch.

We need to be careful of generating mythologies about the capacity for games to facilitate freedom, creativity, and sociality. We also need to be careful not to apply to much criticism. Such mythologies not only create a basic, overly simplistic way of understanding gaming, surveillance, and human culture, it also blinds us to nuance and detail that may be important in its broad understanding.

So while people dangerously block a highway to catch rare Pokémon, walk over cliffs because they aren’t paying attention, or disrespectfully attempting to catch Pokémon in Auschwitz, there are also people who are leaving their houses to engage with the world, using Pokémon to fight depression and other mental illnesses, and creating super cool maps of rare Pokémon spots.

Drawing things together—A Political Economy of Pokémon

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Don’t be so paranoid.

Taking a techno-socio-cultural perspective allows us to engage with Pokémon Go with a nuanced understanding of its positive and negative characteristics. It is possible to look at how this media creates a complex ecosystem of social concerns, political controversies, and cultural engagements with nostalgia, mythologizing, and capitalist enterprise.

Pokémon Go is indeed enabling a ton of new ways of interacting and helping people with mental illness get out of their homes to experience the world—however, we can’t forget that it is also an advance technology developed by those who have interest in money and power.

Regardless of the benefits that are emerging from use of this application, there are still important questions about privacy and the collection and use of Big Data.

So Pokemon Go isn’t just enabling new ways of being social with the larger world. It is enabling new ways of engaging with issues of surveillance, neo-liberal capitalism, and social control through the least expected avenues.

After all of these problematics become more and more public—will we still trade off our freedom for entertainment?

Oligoptica: Why Surveillance Isn’t Perfect?

We have all likely heard of the panopticon. An architectural design of a prison, thought up by Jeremy Bentham, that was suppose to maximize surveillance capacities so that prisoners always felt as if they were being watched. Even when they weren’t. It consisted of prisons revolving around a central guard tower that could watch every move of every prisoner, all the time. However, the guard tower is made to be opaque—so the prisoners can’t watch the guards.

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In 1975, Foucault borrowed this idea to illustrate his concept of disciplinary power in one of his most famous books—Discipline and Punish. The basic idea around Foucault’s use of the panopticon is that when people feel as if they are constantly being watched, they begin to self-discipline. The panopticon can refer to a prison. But it is meant to refer to society in general. Or many of the institutions in a society. The more people feel that they are being watched, the better they act. This watching could be through authorities, or even, your neighbors.

Though Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power is super important to many who study sociological theory—his example of the panopticon is overused and often misleading. It does not accurately represent the nature of surveillance in contemporary society.

The idea of the panopticon better characterizes a society of “total surveillance”. A completely, balls-to-the-walls, 1984, Big Brother-type (dys)utopia. Thankfully, there is currently no technology on earth that can allow for total surveillance.  We may be a society of ubiquitous surveillance, but not a society of total surveillance.

So how do we “move beyond the panopticon”, as so many social and cultural theorists have been calling for? There is one useful theoretical framework that builds on Foucault’s work. This is the concept of the oliopticon. A concept that was proposed by Bruno Latour during his incredibly critical arguments of Reassembling the Social.

Latour criticizes Foucault for drawing up a total surveillance “utopia” that is made of “total paranoia and total megalomania”.

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He writes,

“We, however, are not looking for utopia but for places on earth that are fully assignable. Oligoptica are just those sites since they do exactly the opposite of panoptica: they see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector or the paranoia of the inspected, but what they see, they see well…”

 

Latour is staunchly reminding us that something that is everything is nothing at all. The panopticon is made to be too perfect. It is made to see all. It’s something, that as academics, we can’t possibly empirically record or understand. But the oligopticon is the existence of countless scopes meant for watching. Countless surveillance devices. They only see everything together, but because they rarely communicate it could hardly be called “total surveillance”.

Latour continues,

“From oligoptica, sturdy but extremely narrow views of the (connected) whole are made possible—as long as connections hold. Nothing it seems can threaten the absolutist gaze of the panoptica, and this is why they are loved so much by the sociologist who dream to occupy the center of Bentham’s prison: the tiniest bug can blind oligoptica”.

However, this does not entirely rule out the panopticon. As Kitchin and Dodge in their book Code/Space assert, the power of codes and algorithms may some day be able to unite many of the streams of the oligoptica to create a menacing panoptic machine. However, due to the unstable nature of the practice of scripting code, running code, and working hardware—it is liable to bugs, errors, and absolute mutiny. So don’t hold your breath.

The panopticon, for now, has its place—but it’s a more appropriate theme for a science fiction novel than a good work of social science or philosophy. It serves as a powerful reminder of where a ubiquitous surveillance society could lead us, but not as a very good characterization of surveillance today.

The Slender Man, Legends and Cultural Anxieties

Surveillance is being called ubiquitous by most of the leading scholars who study the social, political, and cultural ramifications of surveillance technology. A focus that I have been studying and thinking about is how surveillance is understood by everyday people living everyday lives.

I do this through the lens of Folklore, the study of everyday life. Or the study of the Folk (lay-person). This is obviously problematic—as such a term equates everyday life with peasantry. So for the remainder of this post I will use the term vernacular performance (i.e. everyday performance).

I’ve written about this work in the past. One of the ways that we demonstrate our cultural anxieties and fears is through the collective performance of legend cycles. In this case, I am speaking about the boogieman of the Internet—the Slender Man.

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What is a legend?

Legends are repetitive and variant. Meaning people tell it over and over again, and as it is told and spread it changes form while keeping a central theme. Legends are a performance between storyteller and audience. Meaning that people perform legend cycles. A teller typically recounts a story to a listener or audience. This does include digital legends. Finally, Legends are not constructed by the teller, but by the community. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience constructs the story and allows it to spread. It is a collective process.

The Slender Man is a creature born the performative interactions of a group of users on the forum Something Awful. The Slender Man is a tall, monstrous figure. One that resembles a tall man in a black suit. He has no face, and extraordinarily long arms. He is sometimes depicted with many moving tentacles. All of this, and his many disproportions give it a Lovecraftian appearance. An eldritch monstrosity.

Cultural Monsters

As Tina Marie Boyer (2013) asserts in terms of the Slender Man, “a monster is a cultural construct” (246). And as such, understanding the ‘anatomy’ of a monster sheds light on the problems people face in their day-to-day existence.

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What is the anatomy of the Slender Man? I decided to do some ‘fieldwork’—exploring many of the blogs/vlogs that contributed to its legendary constitution. I found three major themes: Surveillance, Social Control, and Secret Agencies. This returns us to the topic of this blog post: The Slender Man is a vernacular performance that demonstrates our collective anxieties of a culture that is under the constant gaze of massive and complicated networks of surveillance.

Surveillance

The Slender Man is known to watch its prey. It is rarely confrontational, though it seems to relish in making its presence known. One scene that sticks out to me is from the YouTube series Marble Hornets—the main protagonist, after becoming increasingly paranoid of the faceless man in a business suit following him began to leave his camera running while he slept—only to discover that the slender man watches from a crack in his door while he sleeps. The Slender Man watches, seemingly from everywhere—but even when it is seen, the Slender Man has no eyes to watch from. It is as if it sees everything from nowhere. The Slender Man appears and vanishes, seemingly at will, haunting victims with little to no motive. The Slender Man represents the phenomenon of ubiquitous surveillance in the virtual world. A world where anonymity and pseudonymity are quickly disappearing. A world where only the experts understand what to surveil and how to read the data such surveillance produces. And a world haunted by faceless watchers.

Social Control

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The Slender Man also represent themes of social control. The most obvious instance of this is the ‘proxies’, otherwise known as the ‘hallowed’. These are people who have been overcome by the Slender Man’s will. In many instances, the Slender Man legend telling ends in the main protagonists going mad and disappearing. They are either killed by the Slender Man (or its minions), disappear from time and space and sometimes memory, or are turned into a proxy. This means, they lose their minds and begin to do the bidding of the Slender Man. In the blog ‘Lost Within the Green Sky’, the main protagonist Danny describes it as a form of indoctrination that slowly drains the will from its victims. Even as a proxy, once their usefulness dries up – they are often killed. This theme is not surprising as it emerges from a cultural context that is known for its pervasive ability to control through silent software mediators.

Secret Agencies

The Slender Man is also known as The Operator (signified by a circle with an X through it). This name, along with the black suit it wears, makes the Slender Man a clear reference of Secret Agents. Those organizations who haunt the Internet, forcing those who wish to remain anonymous into the depths of TOR browsers and VPN applications. The Slender Man is representative of the NSA, FBI, CIA, CSIS, KGB and other notorious spy agencies operating with little oversight and behind a secretive veil. They are just as faceless as the Slender Man. And just as cryptic. Few understand the significance of their presence. And those who come under its haunting gaze have quite a lot to fear.

More Research

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Folklore is a small branch of the social sciences.  There are few people who work beneath its flag. And fewer of those people study contemporary, digital folklore. However, this does not diminish its importance. Folklore offers us a lens to peer into how everyday people interpret the world through vernacular expression. It is an essential dimension to the surveillance studies canon. An understanding of how people interpret surveillance is essential if we are ever going to take action to educate people about its dangers.

Visibility and Exposure at the Margins

I had a recent run in with the public eye because of an op-ed article I wrote for the Queen’s Journal on a controversial exploration of the limits of free speech in terms of the ability of the (in)famous Queen’s Alive (anti-abortion) group to table and canvass for supporters on campus.

This lead to a public debate and lots of discussion. It also lead to a ton of mudslinging and attempts at public smearing.

I had also experienced this in the past when myself and another advocate for queer rights filed a human rights complaint against a magazine for a publishing an unsavory article illustrating a scathing hatred for queer folk (they referred to us as evil and pagan). I was waist deep in understandably complex, multidimensional and very contested discourse. These discourses led to unpleasant hate messages and full transparency in the provincial (and to some degree, international) media.

That is not the topic of this blog post. What I would like to discuss isn’t the status of free speech or the unpalatable existence of hate speech. Rather I am interested in the intense visibility that activists (and others) are exposed to through unpredictable new media interactions. These interactions are typically escalated and amplified by the Internet. This is a dimension of contemporary surveillance not conventionally covered by many academics. It is the subjects of surveillance that I would like to explore.

Continue reading Visibility and Exposure at the Margins

Social Media: Moving beyond the Luddite trope

Social media is neither good nor bad, though this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily neutral as it certainly has the potential to exploit and empower. Nicole Costa’s rendition of her experiences and tribulations with Facebook in her recent article My online obsessions: How social media can be a harmful form of communication were incredibly touching. Her refusal and resistance to appearing and contributing to the Facebook community is empowering. However, I believe it is also misleading. Social media and digital exchange and interaction are here to stay (save for some cataclysmic event that knocks out the electrical infrastructure) and because of this I believe that we need to learn how to engage with it productively and ethically. We need to engage with social media in a way that doesn’t jump straight into a moralizing agenda. By this I mean illustrating social media as the savior of humanity or a dystopian wasteland where people’s communication collapses into self-absorbed decadence.

How do we maneuver this politically charged land mine addled cyberspace? First we need to recognize that a great number (in the billions) of the human race use social media (of all sorts) for many reasons. However, this is far too broad, let’s focus on Facebook. Facebook is among the most popular of social media with over 1.5 billion users and growing. It is built into the very infrastructure of communication in the Western world. If you have a mobile phone, you very likely have Facebook. You might even use Facebook’s messenger service more than your text messaging. Facebook allows us to share information, build social movements, rally people together in all sorts of grassroots wonders. As an activist, I’ve used Facebook to run successful campaigns. Why? Everyone uses it, and because of this, it has the power (if used correctly) to amplify your voice. Facebook, and most social media, can be very empowering.

But hold your horses! Facebook is still terrifyingly exploitative. Their access to your personal and meta data is unprecedented. Furthermore, they actively use the data that you give them to haul in billions of dollars. Issues of big data and capitalism are finally coming to the forefront of academic and popular discussion, but the nature of such complicated structures are still shrouded in obscurity. The user sees the interface on their computer monitor. But Facebook sees electronic data points that represent every aspect of the Facebook user(s) in aggregate. Through elaborate surveillance techniques, these data points are collected, organized, stored, and traded on an opaque big data marketplace. Furthermore, the user is not paid for their (large) contribution to the product being sold. They are exploited for their data and their labour—as everything you do on Facebook is a part of the data that is commodified and sold.

At the same time Facebook (and other prominent social media platforms) allow for an unprecedented freedom and speed of communication. They have been embedded into our everyday ways of socializing with each other. New social media have become an invaluable and ubiquitous social resource that we engage in from the time we wake to the time we sleep. It has been used to organize events, rallies and protests. It is used to keep in touch with distant family and friends.  It is used for romance, hatred, companionship, and debate. Facebook is playful and empowering.

So if you are like me than you may be absolutely confounded on how to resolve the tensions between Facebook (and other social media) being at the same time exploitative and empowering. We have gone too far down the rabbit hole of social media and digital communication to merely refuse to use it. It is now a intimate part of our social infrastructure. Those who resist through refusal may find themselves at multiple disadvantages in how they engage with the world. My own ethnographic research into why users refused Facebook illustrated that those who abandoned Facebook may have felt empowered by overcoming the “addiction” of social media, however, they also felt excluded and alone. And it must be noted that mostly everyone I talked to who had quit Facebook are now using it again. So clearly, refusal to use these services is not enough to meaningfully challenge problematics in social media.

The Luddites historically were textile workers who were opposed to the invasion of machines into their workplace. Machines that they figured would gouge away at their wages. Today, it is a term used for those who refuse to use certain technologies. In the realm of social media, a Luddite resistance has proved to be incredibly ineffective. It is also important to note that this sort of refusal obscures ways of meaningfully resisting mass surveillance and the exploitation of user data.

I propose the complete opposite. I propose the path of knowledge. We need to learn how to maneuver through social media and the Internet in ways that allow us access to anonymity. Ways of asserting our right to anonymity. This is critical. We need to mobilize and teach and learn through workshops. We need to scour the Internet for free resources on the technical perspectives of social media. We need to also spread awareness of this double edged nature of social media. It is no use to take a stance of refusal, to ignore the importance of social media, and thus remain ignorant to how it all works. When we do this, we actually empower these large capitalist corporations to exploit us that much more. The less we know about the calculus of social media and how it works on a level of algorithm, code and protocol, the more able the capitalists are at disguising and hiding exploitation.