Social networks, private powers and public rights

This is an excerpt from the lecture I gave on 5 February 2022 in my Digital Law course at the University of Chieti-Pescara. A year has passed, but the analysis is still dramatically topical – Initially published in Italian by Italian Tech – La Repubblica

What gives birth to a social network?

This, from my point of view, is the most disturbing part of the lecture, because modern, and therefore centralised, social networks are the result of an anthropological vision based on the idea that people can be categorised in order to predict and direct their behaviour.

In other words, where the world of newsgroups or the world of IRC were worlds based on the freedom of the person to be what he or she wanted, to relate to others as he or she preferred, today’s social networks create yet another gilded cage, which as I said may be a cage but it is gilded, or it may be gilded but it is a cage. So basically, the anthropological assumption on the basis of which such centralised systems are built is that of considering ourselves a little more – or perhaps a little less – evolved Pavlov’s dogs.

As mentioned, each social network caters for an audience in terms of age, interests and perceptual channel of communication. All this is aimed not at giving a better experience, a better enjoyment of the service, as we read in the various privacy statements: ‘We give you the X-ray and the MRI because we want to give you the best possible experience when using our service’. 

This is not the case: all this is aimed at the creation of a hunting reserve to which no one has access except the lord, the landowner, the owner of the reserve who decides whether today he hunts foxes, tomorrow he hunts roe deer or wild boar, but still hunts someone or something.

The creation of a social network is therefore closely linked to the concept of clusters, that is, the possibility of cataloguing, of grouping several individuals into certain categories. But how do I put them there?

I could ask them to tell me what their preferences are, or much more subtly, I try to figure out what they are interested in.

Social network, person and individual

It is at this point that we begin to insert the concept of privacy the protection of personal information: each of us has a very personal sphere that we do not share with anyone and, on the contrary, has a public part that is the one that guarantees, that allows interaction with others.

Those of you who have studied classical theatre know that there was the concept of persona, that is, the mask that was worn by the actor and that attributed by the fact of being worn a certain role to the person who was on stage at that moment.

Each of us has at least one public persona and one private persona, but in reality the concept is much more articulated and is well explained by the way the Japanese relate to these subjects.

In the vector of social interaction, a Japanese is educated to have a sphere of behaviour that is uniquely his own, exclusive and reserved for himself, not even his parents, his loved ones, his family. Then there is a slightly broader sphere than that of the family, then there is that of his social circle, and then there is the circle of the tanin, i.e. the outsiders, those towards whom there is no relationship whatsoever.

Social networks and profiling

So, getting back to the point, the goal of profiling is not so much to catch the public person, because that one is easy to catch. The objective of profiling is, instead, to get to the centre of these concentric circles, that is, to the individual behind the person, to the intimate sphere that is what drives our behaviour.

If you notice, the more we talk about public behaviour, the more these behaviours are essentially rational: you come to class because you have to take the exam, you listen to what I tell you because it is functional to the objective you have to achieve. But already when you decide to go shopping and buy something, your decisions are less rational and more instinctual. When, then, you have to decide whether a person can become your friend or not, beyond the misuse of the word on social networks, decisions become even less rational and more instinctive or, in any case, pertaining to your individual and personal sphere.

Therefore, the goal of profiling, and this is why it is assumed that the accumulation of data allows this result, is to get to grasp the intimacy of the person. Because if I can understand what is behind the person, behind the mask, then I can direct that individual’s behaviour to achieve my goal, which may be to sell him an expensive pair of mobile phone headphones or perhaps to induce him to vote for a certain politician or another.

Surveillance capitalism vs control capitalism

I do not want to say that social networks are the empire of evil, but it is only fair that you also have this reading of this economic and industrial phenomenon, to anticipate the theme of surveillance capitalism.

You will have read that, more or less everywhere, we talk extensively about big brother, surveillance capitalism and so on, but following the reasoning we are doing today, it is clear that the point is not that of surveillance, but that of control. There is little point in surveillance if I do nothing with it. So the ultimate goal is not surveillance for surveillance’s sake, but surveillance to control people’s behaviour.

Numerosity of users and platform diffusion as a prerequisite for efficient control

It is intuitive, therefore, to conclude that for a social network to work, it needs many users.

It is true that statistics allows us to infer conclusions from a relatively small number, from a relatively small population in terms of numbers provided, as you know, that the sample is balanced and so on, but from the point of view of the social network’s finalisation, numbers matter.

What is the impact of this statement?

First of all, that from a technological point of view there has to be a global spread of the same platform.

If you like, it is the same approach as Starbucks or McDonald’s: wherever you are in the world, you look for a McDonald’s or a Starbucks because they are familiar, because they give us that peace of mind that in a foreign place there is at least one place where we know what to find. So instead of enriching ourselves with the new experience of going to a place that we don’t know, we go maybe 10,000 kilometres to go to a place that we know exactly what it is without even visiting it, without needing to see it. 

In short, the first impact of the global diffusion of the same platform is the obliteration of diversity. And it is paradoxical that this happens at a time when respect for diversity is a watchword.

Controlling devices to control individuals

The global spread of the same platform means global spread of the same tools to make it work. 

Why is this? Because if I have differentiated tools that are not able to access the platform, I lose the opportunity to gain, to hook those users who do not use a particular tool to connect to the network. Hence the alliance between the producers of platforms and the producers of tools, which leads, for instance, companies like Google to produce its own Android smartphone, to have its own operating system which is then licensed to other producers; and that is why, in the past, there was, for instance, controversy between Facebook and Apple when Apple decided to limit the data collection capabilities possible through iPhones, which resulted in a limitation of the data that Facebook could obtain.

Controlling the interface to obliterate individuality

A slightly more insidious thing that comes from controlling interfaces is that from a technological point of view, creating many users means spreading the same way of using the platform globally. If you take an Indian from Bangalore, a Mexican from Tijuana, a North American from New York and put them in a room, you can’t think of people who are more different from each other in terms of anthropology, culture, sensibility, but the moment a WhatsApp notification arrives, they all do the exact same thing, they all make the exact same gesture.

This is the power of the interface.

Using the interface to grant rights

If I am able to impose or propagate the use of my interface, I condition people’s behaviour, but I also condition their ability to exercise their rights, as the following example shows.

If in the operating interface of a messaging platform I insert the button or the functionality that enables the deletion of a message even on the recipient’s terminal, I have given the person, or rather, I have unilaterally decided to give the user, a possibility precisely to delete messages sent by mistake.

If I decide not to do so, it is evident that the non-availability of this option limits a ‘right’ of the user, such as the expectation of not necessarily having to suffer the consequences of an unwanted message, sent unwittingly. In other words, control over the interface allows me to determine what sphere of behaviour is permitted to the user without anyone else having a say.

Think of the decision to insert a thumbs-up next to a thumbs-down, i.e. the dislike.

The fact that a certain content attracts millions of likes gives us no information about how many people disliked it. But deciding whether to also include the possibility of expressing dissent is something that, for example from a political point of view, could have very heavy consequences.

Using the platform to privatise public debate

Let us imagine that we live in a perfect world where everyone who expresses their opinion is actually a human being and expresses their thoughts in good faith.

Let’s assume, then, that the government makes an announcement of a certain policy choice that attracts eight million negative ratings.

What does the government do then?

Will it stay consistent with the will of the people and backtracks? Will it acknowledge that it has been challenged and does the Prime Minister put the mandate back into the hands of the President of the Republic? Or will it not care about this dissent and goes straight on adopting the announced policy?

Considering that all this takes place on a private service, not on a political resource made available by Parliament or the government, it is easy to see how we give a private entity the opportunity to interact directly with the choices of a cabinet.

Controlling the disintermediation of political representation

If a political party decides to use an online platform as an alternative to the mechanism of local, regional and then national congresses, to define its political lines, this is not a problem, because these are internal choices in the democratic dynamics of the functioning of an aggregation, of an intermediate body.

But when there is a disintermediation of political representation, and this disintermediation is managed by a private entity, which does not control the identity of those who express their opinion, but rather has every interest in polarising content and positions in order to generate traffic and data, well, then I have some problems with the suitability or acceptability that such a service implies when it comes to defining not only social behaviour, but also political and legal content.

Homologating rites to heterodetermine their ends

In conclusion, then, it is clear that the spread of the same way of using the platform is yet another declination of the loss of originality and the loss of individuality, that is, in essence, a cultural homologation in terms of rituals, behaviours and approaches that are heterodetermined by the commercial and industrial interests of a small number of actors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *