Covid-19 is giving us a grim crash course in evolutionary biology. Every day we anxiously check the state of the existential race – are people being inoculated fast enough to suppress the disease before a ‘fitter’ Covid variant emerges to take up the baton for an even tougher stage?
But wait. As in a horror movie, just as the frantic vaccination programme seems to give grounds for a glimmer of optimism on one front, it dawns that we are at the same time struggling with an equally toxic mutant on another front, man-made this time, that has erupted in the last few months and may be even harder to douse than the coronavirus.
In a blistering essay in the New York Times, Shoshana Zuboff, author of last year’s monumental The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, makes a direct link between the storming of the Capitol in Washington on 6 January and the data extraction and manipulation business model of Big Tech, specifically the social media companies.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter are to blame for the riot, she declares: ‘The intolerable truth of our current condition is that America and most other liberal democracies have, so far, ceded the ownership and operation of all things digital to the political economics of private surveillance capital, which now vies with democracy over the fundamental rights and principles that will define our social order in this century’.
We have a choice between surveillance capitalism or democracy, she believes. We can’t have both.
Over the top? Judge for yourself. Zuboff’s charge is that we are in the third stage of what she calls an ‘epistemic coup’ that began 20 years ago with the discovery by Google of the value of the personal data that internet users unwittingly gave up in surfing the web, followed by its permissionless annexation of that data for its own use.
That was the first stage of the coup. It quickly led to a second phase of growing epistemic inequality as companies amassed incomparably more data about us than we imagine or than we have about them and their algorithms. The perilous third stage is epistemic chaos, ‘caused by the profit-driven amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation.’
That’s where she thinks we are now, and looking around – at Trump and Trumpism, at Brexit, at mushrooming conspiracy theories and social unrest – it’s hard to argue she’s wrong.
And this of course is the nightmare scenario, where the twin viruses of Covid and surveillance capitalism intersect and reinforce each other. The surveillance model of capitalism is so toxic because it has no interest in the truth or otherwise of the content it carries; its currency is engagement – and as all the research confirms, wild stories, fake news and conspiracy theories, previously majoring on Trump, now on Covid, get more clicks, and therefore personal data to store, analyse, and sell on, than boring reality.
Which is why social media firms only censor or ban purveyors of such theories as a last resort, and why they will fight to retain the protected status granted them by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, their great enabler, which absolves them of responsibility for the content they carry, to the bitter end. It is their major asset.
It also explains why other companies, with a few exceptions, do little to contest the power of Big Tech. As Rana Foroohar succinctly puts it in Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech, ‘they are the ones buying what the Valley is selling’. What’s more, they are also collecting and trading data on their own account.
Surveillance is catching. Every company with a website does it (including the newspapers that we read online) – and that is before the full advent of the Internet of Things, which will multiply the opportunities for data capture exponentially.
In effect, hidden below the visible economy where companies buy and sell products and services there is a swelling invisible one consisting of the extraction and manipulation of personal information. It is claimed to be the fastest-growing industry in the world, its value (although no one knows for sure) estimated at around $200bn in the US alone.
In politics as in commerce, the hacking of humans has real-world effects. Crudely, these are what’s being bought and sold. One of the most serious is the growing difficulty of splicing splintered truth back together. Simple truth no longer carries weight. It is no accident that those who believe the ‘alternative facts’ of political conspiracy are also more likely to believe that Covid is a hoax or caused by 5G masts or part of a plot for a world government of the elite. Adherents of QAnon not only storm the Capitol in support of Trump – they are more likely to refuse face coverings, social distancing and vaccination.
Worryingly, this viral superstrain is not confined to the US. Anti-vax sentiment is particularly strong in France, where the gilets jaunes and other extremist groups, no strangers to violence, have emerged as its natural carriers. In the UK, health chiefs warn of facing two pandemics: one spread by a virus, the other by unregulated social media companies. ‘We have to fight both with equal vigour,’ says the head of NHS England.
The starkness of the civil dilemma this poses is summed up by a reluctant quarantiner in Hong Kong who ruefully notes that the powers that enable Hong Kong to tackle the virus so effectively – the power to lock her up in in a quarantine hotel room for three weeks with an electronic tag and the threat of legal sanctions – are the self-same ones that are also being used being to stamp out political uprising.
Bringing Covid under control therefore has a double urgency: not only to prevent the outbreak of more virulent disease variants but also to head off what can only be called a looming mental-health pandemic, whose effects are unpredictable. They could be as dire as those of the physical infection.
Stamping out the surveillance bug will be harder, requiring whole-system change. Yet ironically Facebook itself just may have brought the belated regulation of social media a small step closer.
Its decision to black out news feeds in Australia (including government and local information sites) in response to that country’s proposal to make platforms pay publishers for content was quickly rescinded. But in a fierce backlash it was widely branded not just as petulant and hubristic, but also counterproductive.
And not just by its sworn enemies. Interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme (at 2:48:40 in) on 23 February, a former Facebook high-flyer expressed fears that strikingly echoed Zuboff’s. While Facebook did good things, and Zuck was ‘a good person’, he was just too powerful, said Steve Sheeler, CEO of Facebook Australia and New Zealand until 2017.
‘In Australia, I can vote for or against the government at the next election, but I can’t vote for or against Mark Zuckerberg – his own shareholders don’t control him. That’s the problem we’re up against here: sovereign nations are coming up against Facebook, yet they’re not on the same playing field in terms of power.
‘A few years ago I thought breaking up Facebook or Big Tech was a fool’s errand, and ridiculous, because their powers weren’t anything like what the critics were saying. But in the past couple of years I’ve come round to the view that the scale, size and influence of these platforms, particularly on our minds and brains and all the things that we do as consumers and citizens, are so powerful that leaving them in the hands of a very few closely controlled companies like Facebook is a recipe for disaster’.
Facebook and the social media had played a major part in events ranging from controversy around the 2016b US presidential election through the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the recent riots in Washington, he pointed out. ‘It’s not going to get better if we allow the industry to regulate itself,’ he concluded. ‘We need to hear the government’s voice in here’.