Delving into subtleties of surveillance capitalism

Everything that people do online is tracked, their every step is monitored and recorded

Technological era has given rise to a new form of capitalism that is ‘surveillance capitalism’. This is an economic model under which individuals’ personal data is sold for profit motives by tech-giants. The main aim of the entities behind this kind of business model is to keep people as much engaged on the screen as possible in order to make the advertisers as successful as possible. A former executive of Twitter maintained that everything that people do online is tracked and their every step is monitored and recorded. This says a lot about the extent of individual privacy we are left with. 

This issue has also been discussed in a Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”. The documentary also sheds light on the three main goals that tech-companies seek to fulfill at the expense of users’ privacy. First one is the engagement goal; to keep users scrolling on social media and make them addictive to this by stimulating the release of dopamine hormone which causes addiction. Second one is the growth goal which sort of incentivizes users to keep them coming back. Third one is the advertising goal which is to make as much money as possible through advertising content. These goals are further powered by algorithms whose purpose is to present users with content that will gather their attention and increase the duration spent on social media and this is done by breaching the personal privacy of social media users.

Yuval Noah Harari grievously points it out in his ‘21 lessons for the 21st century’ as, “As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer see the world as the playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices. Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system _ and then merge into it.”

Social media platforms are also notorious for disseminating false propagandas and fake news around the globe. A recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed that false news spreads six times faster on twitter than real news. Another example that needs to be cited here is that of Facebook. The Wall Street Journal reported that as a result of hate speech and misinformation spread on the platform, communal riots broke out in New Delhi, India, in 2020 that killed 53 people. 

Social media is also being used by different nations to achieve their goals and by getting engaged in the 5th Generation Warfare. One of the main features of this hybrid warfare is to weaponize social media against the target country in order to manipulate its political, ideological and social fabric. An example relevant to this case is the meddling of Russia in United States’ Presidential elections in 2016.

This age of technological innovation has totally changed the patterns of social relations, work environment, political beliefs, and other basic structures that determine the course of our lifestyle. Overuse and misuse of technology is creating existential threat for the society giving rise to mass chaos, lack of trust, loneliness, alienation, polarization, more election hacking and populism, and inability to focus on issues that need immediate attention. Moreover, all the boons provided by social media are being done at the cost of individual ‘privacy’.

Social media has become the part and parcel of everyone’s life in today’s world. Despite its horrendous impacts, there is no way of going back. What can be done is to get cognizant of the strategies manipulated by tech-giants and let ourselves not be used by them. The more the number of people realize about the tragedies of the digital age, the less it will be easy for the tech companies to exploit people. 

The writer is student of Sociology at University of the Punjab, Lahore. She is interested in socio-political dynamics and can be reached on Twitter @beenishfatima63

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