Social Media and its Hidden Persuaders
Social Media and its Hidden Persuaders

Social Media and its Hidden Persuaders

Facebook and its peers don't just mediate our social lives, they help to constitute them.

March 1 st 2013
Appears in Spring 2013

Sensationalism surrounds many accounts of social media: The astonishing rise of Facebook and of its founder Mark Zuckerburg’s empire. The use of social media—on all sides!—in the Arab Spring of 2011. The sheer amount of time consumed as Facebook enthusiasts check posts and updates. The ways that political parties cash in on the information social media provide. The tragic deaths traced to cyber-bullying. Clearly, this is a powerful medium.

But what do social media mean and are there any moral markers to assess them? Sensationalism is one thing; making sense is another. Can we go beyond the box to explore what’s really happening in digital domains? Changes come bewilderingly quick in what seems like a permanent present. There’s no app for history, no time to tinker with the machine to discover what it’s doing, little space to consider the bigger picture.

Do we know what we’re doing with social media or what social media are doing with us? No new medium is neutral. And they all have many dimensions. Here we’re going to consider what happens to “information” on social media. A major misstep occurred back in the 1950s when information was downgraded to something merely to be measured and traded. In losing its link with living bodies it was treated as if those bodies-with-faces mattered less. Social media speak to a felt need for community but its hidden dimensions may paradoxically deny it.

Once—so twentieth century!—we worried about how advertisers persuaded us to buy their products and about the power that a Big Brother figure might acquire to control us through surveillance. Little did we guess back then that corporations would end up being better at surveillance—I’m using a broad definition of surveillance here: any focused, routine, and systemic attention to personal details for purposes such as entitlement, influence, control, or management—or that politicians would devote their attention to their image and brand. Social media form one area where the worlds of state and corporation work together, today, in mutually supportive alliance.

Of course, that relationship can also be abrasive and one party may want to get the edge. Currently, many governments are trying to get more access to those prized personal—subscriber— data and while the service providers and telephone companies are often willing to oblige, actual users are balking at the extent of the power-grab. By and large, though, social media are a key source of what they call “big data” and everyone wants a slice of the action.

Social Media And Personal Data

The rapid rise of social media is one of the most striking cultural changes of the twentyfirst century. In Canada, around 80% of households have mobile phones and more than 60% of Canadians online have social networking accounts. Of those, nearly 90% are on Facebook. About half the social networkers in Canada spend five or more hours per week on this. People read others’ posts and status updates, but also ones from organizations, brands, and events. They may receive offers, deals, coupons. Evidently, this is a commercial as well as a network world. As it happens, it’s also a world in which authorities— employers, police, government departments— are also active.

Social media strike a cultural chord. Many find following others on Twitter or monitoring the Facebook news feed to be absorbing and fun. And although, like telephones, radio, television, and the rest, social media may be used for socially negative, illegal, immoral, or unjust purposes, the majority of users find satisfaction in keeping up with their friends and networks. Social media offer great resources for support in accident, illness, and bereavement and can also be the conduit for finding organs for transplant or, more mundanely, rides home from university or rare antiques for a collection. And of course if there’s a wedding or a birth in the offing, you’ll find out first on Facebook.

If you’re not a social media user, it’s probably because you are concerned about how much time you’d have left for other pursuits, you fear what might happen if others get hold of your data and you have privacy concerns, or you just don’t feel comfortable with new technologies. Each is a legitimate and wellfounded concern. But, like the reasons why people enjoy social media, they tell us only about surface phenomena. At this point, even the term “social media” becomes questionable. More and more, social media don’t just mediate our social lives, they help to constitute them. When you can find out first in Facebook, social media do more than “mediate.”

Social media such as Facebook actually diagnose us rather well. Social media hold up a mirror to show what kind of society we’ve become. A world dominated by consumer desires, short-term commitments, and fluid relationships invites a phenomenon like Facebook, or at least has a strong affinity for it. What I feel I need and whom I’ll benefit from connecting with is basic. This is a key reason why social media strike a chord. For all that Facebook and other social media are used constructively to support long-term groups and communities, much of life on the internet is what University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman calls “networked individualism.”

Without falling for the nostalgic trap of contrasting the “good old days” with the present, it is worth considering the world in which consumer advertising first became culturally prominent. In the first flush of mid-twentieth century consumerism (1957), American critical journalist Vance Packard eloquently exposed the Hidden Persuaders of advertising. Making an early challenge to post-war consumerism (he also wrote The Status Seekers and The Waste Makers) he was especially acerbic about “motivational research” that seemed to work well in creating “needs” that cried out to be satisfied. Interestingly, he saw in those new American suburbs, where face-to-face relationships still were dominant, warning signs of influence and manipulation that he compared with “the chilling world of George Orwell and his Big Brother.”

Packard was reviled by the businesses he attacked, but his work was avidly read for many years and some of his phrases entered the cultural mainstream. However, the practices he exposed were steadily built on and marketing itself became a major industry. Rather than try to persuade each individual what they “need,” marketers now have the capacity to collect consumer data in spades. No longer merely creating “needs” among consumers, the companies now create the consumers they need and, having been so well-trained for decades, we comply with the process, even as we mouth the mantra of freedom-of-choice.

The Power Of Information

Often thought of, excitedly, in terms of usergenerated content, the social media business plan is to profit from personal information. This is not to say that user-generated content is unimportant to social media; to the contrary, it defines social media. This is the point; we upload our own photos and videos, update our status and profiles, tweet our own comings and goings. That’s what we like about it. In web 1.0 we looked for information sources online, dependent on the providers such as Google. But on web 2.0 we provide the information, share it, and use it. Wikipedia is a model here. We’re not mere consumers but producers as well—the new breed of “prosumers.”

But as we engage with social media, so social media are engaging with us. Consumer surveillance is boosted extensively through social media, with the purpose not so much of persuasion as creating customers for a plethora of products. Vance Packard wasn’t so far off the mark when in the 1950s he connected the worlds of consumer and government surveillance. Today, very similar kinds of surveillance are used for different purposes, and the goals of one institution are made to appear like those of others. Thus, for example, governments pull away from “citizenship” responsibilities and rights and push toward seeing people as “consumers” of government services. Such “individuals” are easier to handle.

Twenty years ago, discovering the preferences, habits, lifestyles, and income levels of consumers was a painstaking, labour-intensive task that resulted in the classification of customers into groups, usually by postal or ZIP code. Thus, Canadians are rated from “Lunch at Tim’s” people to the “Cosmopolitan Elite” through to my own neighbourhood category, “Urban Downscale.” Consumers in different groups are targeted in ways according to the group into which they are clustered. Today, however, things are becoming much more sophisticated thanks, in no small part, to social media. For one thing, our “user-generated content” facilitates consumer clustering much more precisely because we offer the preferences, “likes,” and affiliations in identifiable ways. Thus are our practices shaped as we interact, enjoyably, with new media.

Yet make no mistake, this is still surveillance (though marketers call it something different), because our data are used to make profiles that then circulate among companies to grant or deny access, eligibility, or opportunity. It’s not just that companies know more about us than we might like. It’s that we’re seen and assessed in relation to our profile and the same system assigns value to others, too. While we may see the rewards and advantages to us, others, particularly those already marginalized, experience things differently. For instance, consumer profiles are used to indicate who spends most on a specified range of goods. Grocery supercentres seeking to sell furniture, electronics, and household appliances in cities across Canada move out of poorer areas, because local people do not fit the geodemographic profile the stores want. Those local people now have to take the bus to a store further away just to buy food.

Those data may affect us in other ways, too. Police and government departments want access. They can obtain some ready-made assessments from “data brokers” who trade in sorted personal information. Our lives are assessed in part with reference to data gleaned from commercial sources, that indicate to companies how “reliable” or “risky” we are, shown by evidence such as how quickly we pay credit card bills. The aim, ultimately, is to treat not just categories but individuals differently, depending on our observed behaviours and their statistical extrapolation into the future. We’re judged today on the basis of what might happen tomorrow. Such shaping is subtle, calling for exposure and clear responses.

One of the key thinkers on contemporary surveillance is Michel Foucault, who says that power should be re-thought from older models that stressed the state as ultimate authority. During the twentieth century, he suggests, power became automatic. This has only increased with the use of statistics and software. Now compliance can be obtained through making people visible, seeing that they conform to local norms—say, compare them to others in related neighbourhoods and rank them according to the worth to the corporation— and turn visibility into power. Individuals are thus made and re-made and the process is repeated in many areas of society. The power at work becomes less visible, more anonymous, and certainly needs no direct contact, but its effects may be seen everywhere. Governments and corporations alike constantly aim at “individualizing” people. In that state they’re far easier to influence and manipulate.

Bodies, Relationships, Information

Social media are highly surveillant, based as they are on the practices of database marketing that have mushroomed in the consumer realm over the past twenty years. Like those broader practices, social media also enjoy tremendous success, using personal information to create categories of consumers and thus, in a sense, to create the consumers for the products. Consumers are shaped and formed through these processes, often believing both the standard line of the marketers that “we collect your data to better serve you” and that all they purchase and prefer is a result of free choice. In fact, the marketers manipulate our data in order to focus on those customers worth most to them, such that our “freedom to choose” is often just between items or services that have been presented to us, according to our category.

So, are alternative modes of formation still possible and if so, how? Since we’ve moved beyond Packard’s “persuasion” to the kind of formation that we’ve been discussing, is there another way? The world of information-power would like to constitute us as consumers or, more properly, as individuals first-and-foremost, using the assembled and re-assembled datafragments generated from the clickstreams and electronic encounters of our daily lives. But resources are available for quite different practices, born of different modes of formation, that offer not just critique but fresh modes of engagement within domains like social media.

The key is to re-unite things that have become separated for the sake of efficiency, profit, or management. Simply put, the danger is that within the electronic realm, information loses its body (a phrase taken from N. Katherine Hayles), that bodies have only obscured faces, and in turn, that relationships are reduced to the mundane or the manipulative. The story of information is a curious one for which there’s no space here, but the summary is that midtwentieth communication theorists declared that information has no necessary connection with meaning and thus with human, embodied, social lives. Go figure.

This has consequences. Just as border officials trust the screen record rather than the tortured story of the asylum-seeker before them, so marketers rely on their geodemographic data profile rather than the flesh-and-blood customer in the store. And it calls for other ways of knowing far beyond the narrow Enlightenment preoccupation with sense experience or measurement. Such knowing may be built into surveillance practices (such that we can ask not merely about surveillance of others but also surveillance for others) as well as into surveillance studies (that may be conducted from an alternative epistemology, of love).

Being cut off from the body represented by the data also means that the face is veiled from view. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas helps us here. Seeing the face of the other actually calls us to responsibility for the other, says Levinas. The primal question, “Where is Abel your brother?” received rebellious response: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Levinas draws deeply from the Hebrew scriptures to assert that the face reminds us of our relationships with the other person. We’re not only embodied, but social creatures. Both things are more easily neglected in a digital age when we can do things at a distance and where control is more often remote than not.

This kind of engagement refutes in practice the common idea that so-called personal data are somehow neutral, that information has no necessary meaning. This approach may be enshrined in both everyday ethics and in media policy and practice. At heart, it’s an incarnational response that acknowledges how information now helps to constitute our daily lives—especially through social media—but that we can make a deliberate difference as to how it does so. This is St. Paul’s transformationby- renewal remixed for a digital age. As soon as we recognize that we’re embodied creatures with faces, we’ll also recall that we’re social. These factors, acknowledging our bodies, our faces, and our relationships, give a sound basis for critique of social media and of surveillance as well as for the development of alternative practices in each area.

David Lyon
David Lyon

David Lyon directs the Surveillance Studies Centre, is a Professor of Sociology, holds a Queen’s Research Chair and is cross-appointed as a Professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.


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