Social Media destroys democratic norms and practices in 4 easy steps — part 2 of many

Mera Granberg Paul
4 min readMar 2, 2021

And for today’s Zuboff Adventure we explore how the surveillance capitalist coup went down. How did they do it? It takes just 4 steps to co-opt democratic norms and practices. Spoiler alert: we’re on step 3.

Step 1: Surveillance Capitalism. Surveillance capitalism — the kind of business practiced by every social media company out there — appropriates people’s lives as free, raw material and extract behavioral data as a product worth its weight in gold. Just as soon as these companies get tease out that data, that information about US, they declare it THEIR private property. Zuboff calls this step “the appropriation of epistemic rights.”

I’m not certain I understand what epistemic means. It’s a word that trips me up. According to the Google, it relates to knowledge or the degree of its validation. There’s a good argument that these companies have created the environment to increase distrust of information. I think also Zuboff means that these social media companies practicing surveillance capitalism are stealing information or knowledge about us from us, and then calling it theirs.

Like Columbus sailing west and claiming the ‘West Indies’ for Spain, never mind the people and their nations already well established there. Social media companies put a stake right through each of us and declared our digital selves their property. This may be the single largest shift of ownership in the history of humankind. But I think Zuboff would describe it as the single largest theft in the history of humankind.

We used to own ourselves, and now they do. Being on the short end of the colonial stick sucks.

Step 2: It’s when there is an increasing difference between what I know and what can be known — and stored and sold — about me, about you, about every one of us. At this step, the scales tip toward these companies knowing more about me than I can know about myself. They have organized that information in a way that they can store it and they can sell it and I don’t have any right to say anything about that.

Step 3: Things get whacky. We are here now. Called “Epistemic Chaos” I think of it as “knowledge chaos” because “epistemic” still confuses me. Whatever you call it, Zuboff states it’s when the profit-motives of surveillance capitalist companies encourage algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information because it is more likely to keep an individual engaged on their site. And remember the longer you stay on their site, the more money they make.

It’s not the algorithm’s fault, it’s built to do whatever it takes to keep you there short of full-on porn and child trafficking. The algorithm if it was sentient (and at least at this point, it’s not) it would happily splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and even instigate violence… whatever it takes to keep the eyeballs on the screen. But it doesn’t have feelings so it does all of those things with no ability to self-regulate or consider impact. It’s a machine and that’s all it is. It will do whatever it’s designed to do. And it has been designed to keep you and me and everybody else online for as long as possible. It was programed to do that because, and this is important, we users are not the customer, we are the product.

We. Are The. Product.

And we are made more ever more valuable to the customers of social media companies because of the massive amount of data collected and stored on each of us. Anytime we use social media we are informing-on ourselves and also on anyone like us, anyone we know, anyone we’re related to. There is no way to be on social media and not contribute to the data collected on yourself and others — and some of those ‘others’ are the people you love the most, the ones you would take a bullet for. If you’re anything like me this is the point you say, screw that I’m out. And not long after there’s this chilling realization: it’s impossible to leave. And that’s when we know we’ve been had. We’ve been co-opted by a Silicon Valley junta. I guess it was a coup. While I was liking vacation photos, surveillance capitalism took me over and I didn’t even notice it.

Step 4: We’re not here… yet. Institutionalized epistemic (I.e.: knowledge based) dominance is now able to override democratic governance. Knowledge companies use their technological skills to wield a sort of computational governance. This unelected new governmental structure is meted out via private surveillance capital.

There is no justice system inside computational governance, there is no direct representation, and absolutely no chance of enfranchisement. All the power has been grabbed by these private surveillance companies.

According to Zuboff, we have ceded the ownership and operation of all aspects of our digital selves, to private surveillance capital. Those companies wielding the information capital they have been allowed to amass, now vie with democracy over the fundamental rights and principles that define our social order.

The winner runs the country, but not necessarily the government. The government still has the responsibilities to try to make the trains run on time, but power is seeping away.

Tomorrow: gee whiz, how’d we get here?