Opinion: When we become the product

Posted on Mar 27 2018 - 5:55am by Daniel Payne

The whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica has recently brought attention to the amount social media users are tracked online, to the surprise of many.

This has been happening for a long time, though. Life in the internet age has made the tracking and usage of personal data easier than ever. The internet, in many ways, is a surveillance state. Online users’ likes, dislikes, shopping habits, curiosities, opinions, social connections and locations are available, whether legally or illegally.

Why does this matter to you, though?

Because your information and your time online have become a valuable, profitable tool for marketers, politicians and social media companies. Selling you, whether as a group to market to or data to see what messages are effective, is what has made Facebook one of the most profitable companies on earth.

When French philosopher Michel Foucault was first creating theories about the power of surveillance, he postulated that fear was the primary factor in controlling behavior. Subjects, such as prisoners, had to know they were being watched, and therefore fear the consequences of someone watching their actions, to change their behavior.

Foucauldian ideas about surveillance have long been the standard of how people understand its power societally and individually. Many believed they were safe from the grip of surveillance because they did not know of or fear a “big brother” watching over them.

The internet has ushered in a new era of surveillance, though, in which the power of watching over others comes from a new source entirely: the thoughts of individuals themselves.

Those watching the patterns of online users now wish to be largely anonymous. They do not want others knowing that they are watching and acting according to the habits of the groups they are watching.

That is how online marketing of any kind works – by understanding the target audience and making a message that will affect it.

The messages inserted into users’ timelines and sidebars is incredibly effective when tailored to their beliefs and ideas as gathered by surveillance. One study, presented at the 18th International Conference on the World Wide Web, found that messages tailored to a specific audience online can increase clicks on an advertisement by 670 percent.

Some advertisers are interested in making you buy a new shirt. Others are far more sinister, wanting their target audiences to become fearful of people different from themselves, share fake news to their friends or feel certain emotions toward certain candidates or issues.

Social media is a place where people let down their guard. It’s hard to think critically about every post you scroll past.

It’s important to consider the impacts those posts have. Even when users know something to be incorrect, a repeated message, especially one tailored to their interests and ideals, can still greatly affect them.

Seeing something time and time again until perceiving it as true is known as the illusory truth effect. Even when people know something is not true, they are still susceptible to the effect, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Though this revelation is troubling, it is important to recognize, considering the agendas and surveillance that create and guide what your time online looks like can add a skepticism that would have otherwise been absent.

Even better than those considerations, though, is an understanding that the advertisers and social media companies are incentivized to keep you coming back for more. And though it may be free to compulsively check social media, it will cost a perception of the world that will inevitably be engineered by marketers, even if a little at a time, with every glance.

Daniel Payne is a sophomore journalism from Collierville, Tennessee.