Overview: Surveillance Capitalism, Social media and Polarisation (Overview)

This Overview was my first effort at a Zettelkasten Index to help me prepare for an interview in Trond Undheim's Futurized podcast, as explained here.
Created 5 July 2020.
Key tags: surveillance, polarization.


Surveillance capitalism & state

So pervasive, difficult to see from the inside. Term coined by Shoshana Zuboff: latest form of capitalism, familiar in some ways, unique in others. From total control over production (industrial capitalism) to: total control over every aspect of everyday life, including what you think:

the totality of information about our every thought, word and deed... traded for profit in new markets based on predicting our every need – or producing it.

Profoundly undemocratic and dehumanising. Recast this from privacy issue (we willingly traded for nice things) to realise we're giving up

“decision rights”... fundamentally usurped by predictive, data-driven systems...

Not inevitable - technology enables this, but we chose not to regulate it, and the tech giants spend billions lobbying to keep it that way.

This is not just about tech giants - big tech & government:

the twin demons relating to attention... unwanted attention paid to us ... versus our own attention being unwittingly diverted ... living in a Panopticon versus the specter of our personal cognitive resources being fragmented ... by too many competing digital factions that exploit intimate knowledge of their users

Governments rolling out systems to "nudge" us. More data = more effective nudging. Where do you draw the line? Who does it? Who checks/enforces?

"government shouldn’t make up social norms... mislead people for a secondary purpose...

Then throw in augmented reality:

mirrorworld will affect us all at a deeply personal level... severe physiological and psychological effects...to synchronize the virtual ... with the real ... while rendering it visible to millions—will require tracking people and things to a degree that can only be called a total surveillance state

Polarised society

Key linked result: increased polarisation of society. Possibly most important problem: if we can't agree on our problems, or show the slightest respect for each other or the democratic elections we hold, we won't solve any of our problems.

"the US will fracture into something new, unrecognizable, and unstable"


  • Social media optimises for outrage because outrage creates engagement
  • engagement = you volunteering more data about you
  • = more money for surveillance capitalists & control for governments

Regulate all you like: they'll find a way around it, based on behaviour to date. Today's efforts (factchecking, moderation) are small bandaids applied to huge wounds, by the creators of those wounds.

Facebook drives misinformation and radicalization, encourages hate speech, and incites violence... my friends at Facebook have remained true believers
The rage-engage cycle is a key part of how malign narratives gain traction on social media
a platform designed for one result (cannot) be fixed to produce another

When our Feeds are optimised for enragement, politics becomes tribal, creating a perfect environment for disinformation:

"when people... have nonoverlapping lenses, the process by which people make sense of events is more important than the event itself"
social media has the potential to bridge these gaps in ideology, but the way these Facebook discussions take place is ultimately too polarizing and makes others, even witnesses, gun-shy
when people feel they have nowhere trustworthy and independent they can rely on is that they will turn inward ... It then becomes easier for malevolent forces to degrade institutions.
In less than a year... weekly church-attending white Protestants convinced that Donald Trump was anointed by God to be president grew from 29.6 percent to 49.5 percent
shortly after the 2016 election, 14 percent of US adults reported sharing a political news story online that they knew at the time was made up

Filter bubbles are still an open question - probably exist, but not equally strong for everyone at all times. Echo chambers created by 'old media' are indisputable, and not new

homogeneous online networks help conspiracy theories persist and grow online.... creates an ecosystem in which the truth value of the information doesn’t matter.
Facebook and Google... may in fact currently contribute to more diverse news diets... Whether they will still do so after the next algorithm update only they know.
polarization is accelerating fastest among those using the internet the least... Trump’s use of Twitter ... setting the agenda for more traditional news outlets, particularly cable news and talk radio.

Death of independent journalism

Above made much worse by another result of these platforms: destruction of independent journalism.

Journalism as we know it a recent phenomenon, financed by bundling journalism with advertising:

the entire egalitarian economy of the post-war 20th century was more historical anomaly than the rule. In 1820 and 1920, we were a deeply unequal society informed by sharply partisan media. Why should 2020 be any different?

Internet, particularly social media, unbundled everything:

  • people consume articles in their feed, not entire newspapers (article bundles with a reputation to safeguard)
  • increased content supply, with each article looking as professional as the next (credibility signalling broken)
  • advertising unbundled onto craigslist and then facebook - newspaper revenue crashed
search engines and social media have blown apart newspapers’ bundles ... an endless stream of items from all over the web ... Peddlers of fake stories have no reputation to maintain and no incentive to stay honest

Some media will thrive with subscriptions, but internet a winner-take-all environment & many may not outlast Trump bump.

  • most people cant afford to buy multiple subscriptions, so subscription model will reinforce polarisation.
  • most media will disappear without a new business model, particularly local media: good news for local politicians and local crime

Bottom line

In the future we will be less will informed, more polarised, massively manipulated, living in more corrupt and less democratic societies, unable to solve the challenges we face.

Two paths:

Path No. 1: We stay in our silos, passively allowing media moguls and tech platforms to drag us deeper into our corners... algorithms and micro-targeting mechanisms deliver us belief-confirming disinformation and culturally-divisive tropes... language and packaging that we like best... as our political party preferences increasingly overlap... we find ourselves rage-fueled... a war between a socially constructed us that hates the also-socially constructed them... we will be…ungovernable.
Path No. 2: We actively work to disrupt the infrastructure, logic, and economic model ...


Relevant resources

How to Leave Dying Social Media Platforms
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Those who've read Doctorow's books and blogs on the collective action problem stopping people leave the established social media walled gardens may not find anything new, except for the quite brilliant link he makes with "the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof ... the Anatevkans can’t just pack up and leave: they are being …

What is the Small Web? – Aral Balkan
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... or Why Small is Beautiful when it comes to our homes online:"a concept – and a vision for the future of our species in the digital and networked age –... The Small Web.... [By comparison:] The Big Web has “users” – a term Silicon Valley has borrowed from drug dealers to describe the people they addict ... farm users in server farms... you…

Stolen Focus: Johann Hari explains how your attention has been stolen - Vox
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I do like a challenge."We live in the most distracted time in human history. Can we reclaim our attention spans?... A new book by the British journalist Johann Hari, called Stolen Focus, takes a close look at what’s happening — and what’s happened — to our collective attention... we’re all becoming lost in our own lives, which feel more and …

Thinking becoming about thinking to harness the power of knowing what you don’t know (YANSS)
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A YANSS interview with Adam Grant, author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know. Generally an "extensive exploration of how to rethink your own thinking", including his WorkLife podcast interview of Margaret Atwood on procrastination.(When annotating a podcast I really like a transcript, but there was none for this epi…

Privacy activists are winning fights with tech giants. Why does victory feel hollow? | Evgeny Morozov | The Guardian
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Although this looks like someone looking for problems because of the apparent near-future success of "solutionism", some good points here: we need "an institution that will know what ... regulations to suspend (eg libraries and IPR) ... to fully leverage the potential inherent in digital technologies for the public good."Recent…

How Surveillance Advertising Seized Our Data and Hijacked the Web - The Reboot
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Good history of the digital ad industry, from 3rd-party tracking cookies through to today's data-brokered behavioural advertising profiles:"Digital advertisers have steadily transformed the internet into a surveillance machine from which there is no escape... argue that ... universe of on demand digital content has created a crisis of at…

‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation - The New York Times
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"social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation ... are on the rise" - not so much created by bad actors, but exploited by them. Why?“cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and pol…

Surfin’ USA | Vincent Bevins
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Interesting longread on " Why the internet remains a tool of American hegemony", pointing out that " The internet was built by the U.S. military at the height of the Cold War and privatized into corporate America at the peak of anglophone neoliberal hegemony."There was a moment of freedom, when there were "millions of diff…

Parler Makes Play for Conservatives Mad at Facebook, Twitter - WSJ
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Didn't know: "Prominent conservative donor Rebekah Mercer is among the company’s financial backers"Interesting point: one of the main reasons many are on FB/Twitter is to troll other people - will it be harder to get people to come back to an app where everyone agrees with them?

How Some Conservatives Have Switched to Parler, Rumble and Newsmax (FN)
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Fleeting Note (FN): the creation of Fediverse-based alternatives might suddenly become an urgency.

Opinion | Facebook serves as an echo chamber, especially for conservatives. Blame its algorithm. - The Washington Post

Summary of peer-reviewed research - “Understanding Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: The Impact of Social Media on Diversification and Partisan Shifts in News Consumption” - by its authors, who found:more time spent on Facebook, the more polarized their online news consumption becomes...Facebook usage is five times more polarizing for conservative…

Domestic v. foreign disinformation: A question of timing (US2020 Disinformation news, ed. 4)
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There are two possible reasons why we are not talking as much about foreign interference. Both could be true. Only one is good news.

Moral outrage in the digital age (pdf)

After pointing out the evolutionary reasons for moral outrage's existence - to shame & punish wrongdoers - this 2017 Nature paper describes a psychological framework (triggering stimuli -> Responses -> Outcomes) for understanding how online social networks "change the expression of moral outrage and its social consequences?&quo;…

The Biggest Risk to This Election Is Not Russia. It’s Us. - The New York Times
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"Americans must recognize that the United States is ripe for manipulation. With a month to go before Election Day, we are ripping ourselves apart."Covers ground covered earlier, but with an inside perspective from someone on the National Security Council 2017-2019: "Russian operatives wanted to weaken [Clinton] ... delighted when s…

David Carroll discovers Trump's 2016 psychographic profile of him

The current Trump campaign, on the record, said they didn't do #psychographic profiling. "Well, why do I have one in my file? It works as a suppression system.., to subvert the will of the people"

Revealed: Trump campaign strategy to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016 – Channel 4 News
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"3.5 million Black Americans were categorised by Donald Trump’s campaign as ‘Deterrence’ – voters they wanted to stay home on election day."Part 1 of a Channel4 series on #DetteringDemocracy, analysing "data used by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign... almost 200 million American voters... 5 terabytes of data... separated by…

Why the right-wing has a massive advantage on Facebook - POLITICO
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"the right is better at connecting with people on a visceral level", according to Facebook, portraying themselves as a neutral mirror. Rightwing content resonates by "speaking to "an incredibly strong, primitive emotion" by touching on "nation, protection, the other, anger, fear.""This may be true, but it&#x…

Is Russian Meddling as Dangerous as We Think?  | The New Yorker
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Literature note: “How to Lose the Information War,” ... on disinformation as a geopolitical strategy...Mueller report: I.R.A.-created groups and accounts reached tens of millions... the troll factory found “authentic, local voices,” to foment large-scale distrust in government and democracy... and managed to get into the heads of powerful politici…

China’s Artificial Intelligence Surveillance State Goes Global - The Atlantic
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Xi Jinping is using artificial intelligence to enhance his government’s totalitarian control... exporting ... to regimes around the globe... all-seeing digital system of social control... precog algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time ... every person ... identified, instantly, by AI matching them to an ocean of personal data..…

How Facebook and Other Sites Manipulate Your Privacy Choices | WIRED
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Privacy Zuckering... when “you are tricked into publicly sharing more information about yourself than you really intended to... Facebook... paid a $5 billion fine for making “deceptive claims about consumers’ ability to control the privacy of their personal data.” ... “dark patterns,” ... particularly insidious “when you’re deciding what privac…

How to talk someone out of bigotry with deep canvassing - Vox
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to divert someone away from prejudice and toward greater acceptance of others ... “Deep canvassing,”... “giving them grace.”... to hear someone say something that can be hurtful, ... think about how to ... connect with them...have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen... many communities have a call-out culture... conde…

The 2020 Election Will Be a War of Disinformation - The Atlantic
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The president’s reelection campaign ... multimillion-dollar ad blitz ... shaping Americans’ understanding of ... impeachment ... micro-targeted ads ... portraying Trump as a heroic reformer ... while Democrats plotted a coup... An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape ... I wanted to see it from the inside...I was surprised by the effec…

AI-Generated Text Is the Scariest Deepfake of All | WIRED
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GPT-3... AI that can produce shockingly human-sounding (if at times surreal) sentences... imagine a future in which the vast majority of the written content ... is produced by machines... adjust, and adapt, to a new level of unreality ...video may turn out to be the easiest to detect ... Politicians will now be able to dismiss real, scandalous vid…

Opinion | The Future of Nonconformity
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marginalization of those with radical critiques... poisoning both the right and the left ...resentment and victimhood spread across the American right — an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a moral superiority complex ... Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging ... Sarah Palin and Donald Trump reintroduc…

Designing social platforms fit for the future
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For the 6th episode of his Futurized podcast, Trond Undheim asked me why surveillance capitalism inevitably leads to polarised, undemocratic and dysfunctional societies, and what we must do about it...If we don’t change course, in the future we will be less will informed, more polarised, massively manipulated, living in more corrupt and less democ…

Dataminr Helped Police Use Tweets To Surveil BLM Protests
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LEVERAGING CLOSE TIES to Twitter... Dataminr helped law enforcement digitally monitor the [BLM] protests ... with the latest whereabouts and actions of demonstrators... essentially surveillance by U.S. law enforcement entities, contradicting its earlier assurances... siphoning vast amounts of social media data ... converting it into tidy police …

Stop Hate for Profit
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We are asking all businesses ... not advertise on Facebook's services in July.What would you do with $70 billion? We know what Facebook did. They  allowed  incitement  to  violence  against  protesters  fighting  for racial justice... named Breitbart News a “trusted news source” ... turned  a  blind  eye  to  blatant  voter  suppression ...…

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
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all recorded, rendered as data, processed, analysed, bought, bundled and resold like sub-prime mortgages...not some dystopian imagining of the future, but the present... the totality of information about our every thought, word and deed... traded for profit in new markets based on predicting our every need – or producing it... tech giants unilate…

We’re Not Polarized Enough | The New Republic
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Many of our political forebears pined for more polarization... fretted about the incoherence of their identities ... There were liberal Republicans ... opponents of civil rights and big government in the Democratic Party... 1976 ... Richard Nixon... proposed a universal health care ... created the Environmental Protection Agency... tighter i…

Attention Paid vs. Paying Attention in Pervasive Computing — MIT Media Lab
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in this Special Issue ... explore the twin demons relating to attention... unwanted attention paid to us ... versus our own attention being unwittingly diverted ... living in a Panopticon versus the specter of our personal cognitive resources being fragmented and deleteriously diverted by too many competing digital factions that exploit intimate k…

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