The implications of social media surveillance for free political expression.

This was an essay for uni…so it is a little limited in what it covers but you can find out more about internet surveillance through your own research :).

Social media sites such as Facebook have become ubiquitous in the lives of young people, raising concerns about online privacy and security. Revelations about internet surveillance by governments and corporations have recently been unearthed, igniting the need for an investigation into the use of surreptitious and explicit surveillance techniques including data mining and surveillance of personal communication and examples of how it could threaten the civil and political rights of young people growing up in a digitised world. 

Since its inception in 2004, over 955 million people have flocked to Facebook (Lee, 2013, p. 217), with 95 per cent of adolescent social media users in America in possession of a Facebook profile, a trend that is probably similar in Australia (PEW, 2011) Facebook users share images, thoughts, geolocation data and even addresses and phone numbers on Facebook (Lee, 2013, p.154). This data is recorded and analysed by Facebook’s algorithms and shared with third parties (Hill, 2012, p. 118). It is possible Facebook users are not always aware of how this data is being used and whom it is being shared with.

 In 2009 Facebook was charged by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for misrepresenting its “data use policy” and thereby violating privacy and putting data at risk (Lee, 2013, pp. 16-17). Facebook was also implicated in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass internet surveillance program, Prism. An internal document leaked by an NSA Whistleblower claims the NSA has direct “backdoor” access to Facebook servers. The unscrupulousness that Facebook has demonstrated in sharing the data of its users with third parties without obtaining properly informed consent could be a threat to the privacy of young people and their freedom of personal and political expression. 

The lines between political dissent and terrorism have blurred considerably since September 11 (9/11) in the eyes of American law enforcement (Chang, 2002, pp. 44-46), while Western democracies have used 9/11 as a justification to invest heavily in the surveillance apparatus (Richards, 2013, p. 1938). When discussing surveillance in Web 2.0, explanations of basic theoretical foundations in surveillance studies are helpful. Foucault’s panopticon is the ideal architectural structure for centralised power applied figuratively to surveillance (Fuchs et al., 2012, p. 6-7). A single surveillant can view everyone else within the structure without showing himself, thereby prompting those in the panopticon to internalise censorship out of fear that they are being watched (Allmer, 2012, p. 126). The idea of the panopticon is a very useful surveillance theory that assists in the study of surveillance but it does not encompass all forms of surveillance. 

In 1984, George Orwell takes the notion of the panopticon further by making it interactive. Although the partnership between surveillance and propaganda is omnipresent in 1984, it is epitomised by the telescreen, which watches the protagonist whilst “bruising his ears” with hegemonic disinformation (Yeo, 2010, pp. 56-57). The telescreen signals an end to privacy and an attempt by authorities to own the hearts and minds of citizens, a pathology that could be compared to the use of algorithmic feedback loops (Otterlo, 2012, p. 2) employed by advertising firms to first collect data then manipulate consumer behaviour through targeted advertising. This interactive surveillance creates a “hegemonic teleculture” (Hill, 2012, p. 109) in which the consumer choices of Internet users can be subtly engineered by advertisers. These interactions are trickling out of a market context and into the social and political lives and decisions of young people living in the digital age.


Albrechtslund offers more positive viewpoint than Orwell and Foucault, suggesting that online sharing of information including geographical data is an empowering form of social or ‘participatory surveillance’ that strengthens the social fabric and that power dynamics between the watcher and the watched are not unidirectional (2012, pp.190-192). The complexities of modern surveillance systems and methods have outstripped experts’ efforts to neatly define the nature of surveillance. The contemporary ‘surveillant assemblage’ embodies elements of all the surveillance theories that have been discussed and includes many organisations, methods, motivations, technologies and individuals (Fuchs, Boersma, Albrechslund & Sandoval, 2012, p. 7). The proliferation of myriad new surveillance methods and means that accumulate to form the “surveillant assemblage” is creating a situation in which inquiry into the ethics and consequences of surveillance is failing to keep pace with advances in surveillance capabilities.

The Surveillant Assemblage is a dynamic surveillance systems theory without fixed boundaries in terms of place, type of technology, motivation or the form that the watcher takes (Haggerty & Ericson, 2000, p. 609). The dynamics of the surveillant assemblage are so fluid that political and legal action to curb the growth is often fruitless and academic literature fails to keep up. The surveillant assemblage is not confined to any one technology or form of technology. Haggerty and Ericson assert that, because the assemblage exists across innumerable technologies, organisations and motivations, conventional means of fighting the surveillance apparatus are tantamount to trying to “keep the ocean’s tide back with a broom – a frantic focus on a particular unpalatable technology or practice while the general tide of surveillance washes over us all” (2000, p. 609). One of the features of the general tide of surveillance is Big Data. Where data used to be collected surreptitiously by “surveillants”, users of social media sites like Facebook now assemble their own ‘file’ willingly, which is then collected, analysed and stored through algorithms and other means by corporations and governments (Otterlo, 2012, pp. 1-2). Not only is the surveillance apparatus advancing fast, but the interactions between the “watchers” and the “watched” are changing with the aid of social media platforms. 

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claims that Facebook is the most abhorrent surveillance apparatus in history, providing easy access by governments to a comprehensive database of names, addresses, associations and other personally identifiable information (Lee, 2013, p. 202). The extent to which U.S. government, which recently announced more than $200 million in funding for big data research (Lee, 2013, p. 202), has been spying on its own citizens through Web 2.0 sites like Facebook and Google was unspecified until recently, when a National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower leaked documents to The Guardian regarding one of the biggest surveillance operations in history (Greenwald & MacAskill, 2013). The NSA’s Prism program claims to have direct access to Google, Facebook and other sites (Landau, 2013, p. 70) and has used these sites to conduct extensive surveillance on the personal communications of users (Greenwald & MacAskill, 2013). While all this is supposedly done in the name of safety and security, such extensive surveillance without the consent of the governed could have a negative impact on the civil and political wellbeing of young social media users.

Such pervasive Internet surveillance could have monumental and unimaginable consequences for “digital natives” who are too young to have experienced any reality with which to compare their digital lives (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008, p. 2). Kerr et al. suggest that a more appropriate description of ‘consent’ regarding data use agreement is “mandatory volunteerism” because not consenting can lead to social exclusion (2006, section 1).  When young people are aware of surveillance, they may modify normal behaviour, feel scrutinised and move into unsafe online spaces to avoid violation of their right to privacy (Mcahill & Finn, 2010, p. 287). “Social Software” and the information that is broadcast upon it does have the potential to enhance young peoples’ access and participation in local and global grassroots activism and nurture a more participatory democracy, however, whether information liberates or subdues people depends on the latitude that citizens are granted to challenge or reject the status quo without fear of reprisal (Neumayer & Raffl, 2008, pp. 10-11). Young people have access to vast amounts of information regarding their civil and political rights and unprecedented opportunity to ignite global social media initiated grassroots movements but they may face consequences for doing so. 

One of the most recent examples of a Web 2.0. mediated social movement is Occupy Wall Street in New York, which enabled participants to participate in political life but also fell prey to “strategic incapacitation” techniques by law enforcement. The New York Police Department used information collected through social media (Police Executive Research Forum, 2011, p.38), Closed Circuit TV and other forms of surveillance to predict and pre-emptively police the actions of protestors and create “spatial containment” zones where civil liberties, including freedom of the press and freedom of speech were suspended and activists were arrested for exercising their “inalienable” rights (Gillham, Edward & Noakes, 2013, pp. 13-18). While Facebook and other platforms mobilised participants, spread awareness and facilitated involvement in the Occupy movement, protestors faced a loss of privacy and a risk of negative interactions with police in online and offline spaces due to extensive surveillance by law enforcement designed to suppress the civil and political rights of Occupy members. 

Due to the ever-increasing sophistication of the online “surveillant assemblage” (Haggerty & Ericson, 2000), which features data mining, geolocation, direct accessing of personal communications by law enforcement, data “feedback loops” and other techniques, young people are experiencing an unprecedented loss of privacy that they never consented to in a meaningful way in a world dominated by social media. Social media has led to a previously unimaginable volume of political information that young people can access, however, law enforcement has recognised the utility of social media in policing dissent, possibly deterring young people from voicing their political grievances. The consumer choices of young people are perhaps not truly their own either now that data mining corporations have access to their thoughts and desires through social media and feed it back to them through the “hegemonic teleculture” (Hill, 2012) to influence their choices and thereby shape the dominant culture that young adults will subscribe to. The use of social media to conduct surveillance poses a definite threat to the civil and political rights of young people and inquiry into and regulation of extensive social media surveillance is essential to democracy. 


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