“Manipulation campaigns can plug into the commercial surveillance infrastructure and draw on lessons of behavioral science. They can use testing to refine strategies that take account of the personal traits of targets and identify interventions that may be most potent. This might mean identifying marginal participants, let’s say for joining a march or boycott, and zeroing in on interventions to dissuade them from taking action. Even more worrisomely, such targeting could try to push potential allies in different directions. Targets predicted to have more radical inklings could be pushed toward radical tactics and fed stories deriding compromise with liberal allies. Simultaneously, those predicted to have more liberal sympathies may be fed stories that hype fears about radical takeover of the resistance. Such campaigns would likely play off divisions along race, gender, issue-specific priorities, and other lines of identity and affinity.”
—Matthew Crain and Anthony Nailer, “Commercial Surveillance State.” N+1. September 27, 2017.
Giving Up Social Media & The Feudal Internet
Quitting social media is an ongoing theme of this blog with posts discussing various aspects:
- Arguing against particular social media services, e.g., Be Seeing You, Facebook.
- Describing new technologies major Internet companies employ for surveillance, e.g., Facebook & Facial Recognition.
- Describing how third parties use these platforms in the service of both advertising product and manipulating public opinion, e.g., Information Operations & Facebook.
There are some people who believe that the solution is a matter of individuals understanding the problem, transforming the design of social platforms, and changing the business incentives. In other words, the solution is either government regulation or a major company of the feudal internet — Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft — redefining the landscape to put user’s interests first.
I think a better solution is to redecentralize the Internet. But, these efforts will need support in their early stages, and they will take time to mature. In the meantime, the best solution is to avoid the feudal Internet as much as possible and seek out other, decentralized options that can serve your needs.
But, decentralized options come with costs. Users pay for the service themselves rather than advertisers paying the cost in exchange for targeted advertising based on information about users.
What options are there? Here are some suggestions to get you started.
- Email: Protonmail.com (easiest, but currently with no export options) Kolabnow.com, Posteo.de, and Lavabit.com. ($0-60 / year)
- Files: Owncloud / Nextcloud, easiest through third party providers. ($0-$60 / year)
- Photos: Keenai, Smugmug.com (~$60 / year)
- Bookmarking: Wallabag, easiest to use their hosting service (€12 / year)
- Publishing: WordPress.com (easiest to use thier hosting service, personal blog, $0, $35.88 / year)
So, people with minimum space requirements can substitute these alternatives for the feudal internet services for less than $100 / year. For $200 / year, most people can get enough space for their needs. Further, alternative services often have additional functionality “free” feudal services do not provide.
By making the choice to get away from feudal internet services, we are investing in an economic and software development environment that puts the user back in control because the user is the client, not the product. It may be that government intervention can fix some of the problems of social media and reign in the power of the feudal internet companies in the public interest. A company like Apple might do the right thing for the people using their services. But, the best option is for more people to seek out alternatives, which will give those options the opportunity to develop into viable competitors to the major Internet players.
Notes on an Emergency
“But at the same time, I’m not convinced that a civilization that is struggling to cure male-pattern baldness is ready to take on the Grim Reaper. If we’re going to worry about existential risk, I would rather we start by addressing the two existential risks that are indisputably real—nuclear war and global climate change—and working our way up from there…But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.”
—Ceglowski, Maciej. “Notes from an Emergency.” Idlewords.com. May 10, 2017.
Be Seeing You, Facebook
tl;dr: I have decided to delete my Facebook account. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated. To quote from the television show, The Prisoner: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!” Join me, and quit Facebook today. (1175 words)
“In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to ‘suppress’ their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These ‘dark posts’—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.”
—Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, The Data That Turned the World Upside Down
I have decided to delete my Facebook account. This post is to explain why and to encourage others to do the same.
There is no shortage of criticisms of Facebook and excellent blog posts that discuss the many problems of Facebook in detail. It can be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in the discussion of a particular issue, such as privacy, or combination of issues and the supporting documentation involved.
But, there is really just one essential point. Facebook is a surveillance platform designed to gather and sell as much information on its users as possible and provide a medium for the delivery of advertising and propaganda to them for its clients. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated.
Of course, it has to offer something useful to the people that use it too. It helps its users stay in touch with other users they know, expand their social networks, form groups, share photos, buy and sell items, plan events, read curated content matched to individual interests, find jobs, etc. There is no arguing that it is a powerful and useful social platform.
But, it’s not free. Facebook’s market capitalization is ~$385 billion. According to Facebook’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year Results for 2016, it made $8.63 billion in advertising revenue, invested $4.49 billion in capital, and has a monthly user base of 1.86 billion. In other words, they made $4.63 in advertising revenue per monthly user, and they invested $2.41 of that in capital expenditures in 2016. Based on market capitalization, every monthly user is worth $206 to Facebook’s value.
Who is paying the costs of Facebook and our “free” use of the service? And what do they get in return? Marketers, data aggregators, governments and others get detailed information about users and the ability to deliver targeted advertising to those users that are most receptive to their messages or they can eliminate or mute other points of view. These profiles combined with the media delivery capability of the platform is Facebook’s product. You are Facebook’s product. You are being “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered” making Facebook and its clients billions of dollars.
Facebook made $8.63 billion in 2016 selling data and delivering ads to its users. How much of that money was used to influence you? And how much did it cost you to pay for Facebook at the store, at your polling place and in the various ways Facebook influences how you perceive the world, e.g., “unfriending” someone? It is difficult to say what those costs are, but the only thing that is certain is that they are there and they are likely much higher than you expect.
There are many implications from how Facebook makes money. First, Facebook is incentivized to collect as much information as possible, and it uses its ability to progressively redefine its terms of service followed by public relations and marketing to convince its users to accept a continually lowering bar of privacy. The more information it has on its users, the better its product.
Selling user’s data, invariably, is going to support the expansion of the surveillance state. The company may even do so unknowingly, such as when its data was used by a third party to produce a survellience product for police monitoring of activists of color.
Or, since Facebook is an advertising platform, what is the difference between advertising and emotionally manipulative social research on users without independent ethical oversight? Is there a difference?
If Facebook works with data brokers to deliver a targeted ads, like those featuring Hillary Clinton talking about black men as “predators”, how is this different from “fake news”? What does “fake news” mean when Facebook also engages in censorship in cooperation with various governments? Is “fake” anything that doesn’t agree with a given state’s narrative? Even the truth can be fake, when it is cut up and delivered for the purposes of manipulating an audience into a pre-determined conclusion, which is Facebook’s business model. Facebook is the primary peddler of “fake news” on the Facebook platform. Going after “fake news” outlets is simply eliminating the competition.
Using Facebook and allowing myself to be manipulated in this way is something I can no longer do. In conjunction with deleting Facebook, I have also deleted my other social media accounts, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Flicker, etc., because they present many of the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree.
Then, there is Google. Like Facebook, Google is in the business of collecting data on it’s users and selling advertising. This shows there is something deeply flawed with business models that are built around selling user’s information, and to the degree it is possible, we should pay for the services we use. Freedom comes at a cost — in time, convenience and money. When you are getting something that makes things easy, convenient and is provided for at no cost, you’re paying in your freedom. Best to choose the harder or more expensive path when it’s possible, and to do without when it’s not.