David Beer – The power of our social media data

“Platform Capitalism is, of course, underpinned by the value of our data. Targeting people using their data is not the exception, it is the whole point. It is targeting that enables data to be turned into value.”

David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. Metric Power is now available in paperback. His next book, The Data Gaze, will be out later in 2018.

Cross-posted from Discover Society

The power of our social media data

The stories about Cambridge Analytica and the use of Facebook data have been sweeping across the media over recent days. As I write this piece the most recent stories are of dramatic headquarter raids, and the story is set to rumble on. The recent expose has left us with an impression of skulking figures lurking in the shadows, seeking to use our data to control us. The idea that we can be manipulated via our data is, admittedly, very concerning and a little intimidating. This is a type of power, informed by our data, that acts upon us in surreptitious ways, shaping our worlds below the level of our consciousness. At least, that is how it might seem.

Of course, companies like Cambridge Analytica have a reason to promote such visions of the power they wield through data. They seek to inflate the value of the data, their main asset, by talking-up its potential. As a result, the lens through which we are now seeing the power of data is at least partly built by them and by this industry. Cambridge Analytica are unusual in that this inflation of the possibilities is part of their attempt, it would seem, to cultivate a shadowy fixer type image. By emphasising the idea that our data can be used to get inside our heads, ‘psychographics’ are part of this image. Such ideas are undoubtedly built upon a fairly crude logic, a logic that is based upon the premise that we are our data and therefore our data can be used to remake us. This is not to say that such use of data in things like political messaging and targeting has no power, far from it, we just should not approach these questions by accepting the type of visions that these figures project upon themselves and their use of our data.

Cambridge Analytica and others within data analytics seem to be trying to exercise two types of power. The first type is based upon this use of people’s data to shape or tailor the world that individuals encounter in their social media feeds. Part curation, part manipulation, they try to know us though our data. It seems likely that it is at least possible to cement or amplify certain world views by targeting ideas at those already receptive to them. We should not accept this power uncritically, but we also should resist the temptation to reject it out of hand for its implied ideas about people’s inability to resist and reject. Simply accepting, or outright rejecting, the power that can be exercised through our data does not really get us very far. Even if people are not so easily manipulated as we might be led to believe, which they aren’t, the use of data targeting is still shaping what is known and might still be setting the terms of the debate. Dictating what it is that people encounter will inevitably have effects, but just not necessarily those that are being suggested.

This leads us to the second type of power, which is based in the way that this data and its possibilities are imagined. Part of the power being exercised here is located in the type of visions of an all-seeing and all-knowing politics that are being carefully built. This type of vision is bundled up in notions of psychographics and how, through their voluminous data resources, analytics can change individual views and behaviours. These things may not be achievable in the ways being suggested, but there is a power in this set of imagined capabilities. Such powerful visions of data are persuasive and create opportunities for data-led thinking and approaches to spread and dominate. The aim, it seems, is to project a kind of authority upon those using these types of data analytics, that authority then lends them political capital.

In terms of the broader context, Platform Capitalism is, of course, underpinned by the value of our data. Targeting people using their data is not the exception, it is the whole point. It is targeting that enables data to be turned into value. Both the current news stories and the valuations of Facebook are testament to this. Facebook’s value is based largely upon its data. The fact that these news stories undermine the potential future use of data may well be why Facebook is reported to have lost $60bn of value since the news broke. Of course, the data alone have little value. The value of data is actually in its imagined potential. In other words, the value of our data is in how it might come to be analysed, what it might be used to infer about us, how it might be used to predict or promote certain actions, behaviours, tastes and choices. With the potential of data located in its future value, the imagined possibilities are ever more important, especially as they come to mix with the realities.

In the abstract, we probably all know that this data harvesting is going on, but what seems to jar is when the realities of these processes are made clear and tangible to us. This might be why the Cambridge Analytica stories have gained such attention – we instinctively knew this was going on but the materiality of the stories suddenly made it real. The realities have suddenly clashed with what we imagined. This is where the problems of consent have revealed themselves to us and where we are presented with an opportunity reflect more directly on how power is being exercised on us through our own data.

When it comes to the value of social media companies, the key thing to remember is that it is you, the user, that has created that value. You are the worker. The key assets are the data produced through profiles and interactions. We are engaging in what has been referred to as free labour, on a mass scale. All of this poses the question of why we continue to work so hard and so diligently for social media companies so that they can both create value out of us and use the fruits of our labour to try to manipulate us. Over the last few days many have been reflecting on how we might change things. So powerful is the decade long imposition of social media in everyday life that an alternative is hard to imagine. There are a lot of things that are far easier to imagine than a life without social media. It seems unlikely that people will suddenly be horrified enough by these recent news events to delete their Facebook accounts, it is simply too embedded in how people live and relate to one another.

By way of a solution, some have called for escalating regulation of the sector, this would be welcome but it will be hard to manage on a transnational scale. These platforms span the globe and are part of a complex geographical media ecology – though this certainly should not stop us trying. One of the more radical ideas is to nationalise Facebook (and, potentially, other social media platforms) or create nationalised alternatives. An issue here might be the problem of state ownership of such data – it also asks the question of where such platforms would be nationalised. Paul Mason has explored some of the options here, suggesting that we might both break-up and nationalise Facebook at the same time. Taking a slightly different line, one option might be to turn Facebook, and possibly other large scale social media platforms, into a mutual. It would then be owned by its workers, by which I mean ordinary social media users, allowing its benefits and profits to be shared collectively. The profits could then be used for global and collective developments and initiatives. This, effectively, would be to think of social media as part of a mutually owned commons. As well as creating revenues for collective projects, such a shift in ownership would change the motivations behind the use of the data – it would be free from the imperative to manipulate in order to make ever greater profits. We could then have a different type of platform whilst also changing the way data are used, thought of and deployed.

Solving this situation will require changes in the way our data are treated, it will also need us to shift how we think of the labour that produces those data in the first place. The alternative is to continue down the path that we have been on for quite some years, a path that leads to ever more data harvesting and ever more profound attempts to fold that data back into our lives. I would suggest that we think much more structurally and reflect not just on the data of the individual, but on the whole purpose and ownership of these collective spaces.


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