Surveillance Capitalism is Unraveling Democracy

Joe Zappa
Joe Zappa
Jan 30 · 13 min read
Image by Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg entered the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in November of last year. Andrew Yang had filed to run for president a full year prior. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg did so by April. In the weeks preceding Bloomberg’s announcement, 83 percent of Democrats indicated they were satisfied with the historically large crowd of candidates who had already been courting their votes for the better part of a year.

By the second week of January, early favorites including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker had dropped out, and Bloomberg had catapulted into the top five in national polls, which regularly showed him earning mid-single-digit support, a feat all but the top four candidates had struggled to achieve. One survey showed him tied with Warren for third at 11 percent. This was without a single debate performance, the showcase by which other campaigns live or die as they struggle for the green needed to compete on the ground in early primary states. Bloomberg does not even intend to court delegates in Iowa or New Hampshire; his campaign indicated early that it would forgo the typically crucial momentum at stake in those states, focusing instead on a national campaign that would position him to rack up delegates on Super Tuesday.

Even if Bloomberg’s campaign ultimately fails to generate the level of support he needs to secure the nomination, writing his candidacy off as a case of defied hubris would be a grave misrepresentation. That Bloomberg, despite entering a saturated race months late with no early-state strategy, zero debate performances, a lackluster persona, and abysmal favorability ratings in his own party, has broken into the top five is a sign that surveillance politics, still in its early days, will dominate campaigns for public office going forward.

If Bloomberg’s outsize, ad-driven success is any indication, visiting every county in Iowa to meet with voters will seem a quaint practice a decade or two from now. Why convince voters handshake by handshake when you can pay Facebook and Google millions of dollars to hit potential voters with precisely the message most likely to convert them into supporters at the most propitious time and place? Those familiar with the pitches of ad tech firms will recognize this language as precisely what they promise: using intimate data about people’s identities, preferences, and actions to control real-world behavior.

Skeptics may ponder whether the data-driven advertising model that remade the global economy, turning any business that failed to digitize into a dinosaur (see: brick-and-mortar retail and print publishing), works in politics. Admittedly, attribution, the process by which firms verify that ads truly accomplish their objectives, driving not only clicks but also conversions, or purchases, is scarce in political advertising, where it would at its most accurate require following voters exposed to political messaging into the voting booth. It is harder to prove that Cindy voted for Trump after seeing a Trump ad than it is to prove that John bought Dove soap after seeing a Dove ad.

Yet it is precisely this dearth of data on political ads that clarifies the unprecedented and chilling power of Bloomberg’s political operation. Bloomberg is not just dumping money into Google and Facebook’s pockets, spending more on digital ads from November to early January than any other Democratic candidate spent in all of 2019. He is also building his own digital ad firm, Hawkfish, whose express purpose is to provide unparalleled insight on the effectiveness of political ads and program campaigns with the acuity of ad tech’s most sophisticated operatives. That he is doing so with minimal media scrutiny makes this facet of his campaign the most under-reported component of the 2020 race to date.

Bloomberg founded Hawkfish early last year. The firm, which conspicuously lacks a website, is spearheading advertising and analytics for his campaign. Hawkfish is also assembling an A-list team of tech, finance, and advertising maestros. The staff of more than 50 employees, no doubt unaffordable for Bloomberg’s non-billionaire competitors, includes the former co-chief information officer of Goldman Sachs, Facebook and Google veterans including Facebook’s ex-chief marketing officer Gary Briggs, and previous Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck.

Glueck’s expertise alone should instill an understanding of just how effective Bloomberg’s political ad operation may prove. Glueck pioneered Foursquare’s transition from a consumer-facing check-in app to an enterprise intelligence powerhouse that marshals one of the world’s most robust location data sets to help marketers influence customers. When the Wall Street Journal ran a profile of Glueck last year, the headline read: “The CEO Who Knows Where You’ve Been.” Equipped with unlimited cash and the foresight to funnel it into the dominant model of future political campaigns, Bloomberg now knows where you’ve been, too.

In June 2018, the New York Times published an op-ed on seven patents Facebook had filed, all of which speculated about possible ways the company could gather more data on users’ personal lives. Facebook researchers considered inferring user personality traits based on the content of posts and messages; predicting the timing of major life events including deaths and births using user-generated text, credit card transactions, and location data; and assessing the television programs users watch and whether they mute ads by tapping into mobile phone microphones.

The patents show the depth of Facebook’s potential knowledge of its users as well as its willingness to share that knowledge to make its advertisers’ objectives a reality. If advertising technology providers can leverage highly sophisticated understandings of their users — where they move in the world, whether and when they are happy or sad, with whom they spend their time, why they may or may not buy a product or vote for a political candidate — to all but guarantee behavioral outcomes for their clients, they become essential promotional channels for businesses striving to stay afloat in the global economy. No business can give up the digital economy’s magic elixir: our personal information. Google and Facebook, the digital juggernauts that wield the largest inventories of personal information and offer the most precise ad targeting products, become indispensable partners for all enterprises, expanding the corporate addiction to personal data well beyond what we tend to recognize as the tech industry.

In this age of surveillance capitalism, the term Shoshana Zuboff coined to describe our data-obsessed economy, the progressive bona fides of individual corporate actors, however believable, are immaterial, no match for a system to which privacy is foreign. In the aughts, Google forged this new normal, which dictates that companies either gain as granular an understanding of people as possible and use that knowledge to manipulate them or risk irrelevance. Facebook emerged to compete with Google, and the two now duel to push the digital advertising model to more rapacious extremes. Two more of the world’s six most valuable companies by market capitalization, Amazon and Microsoft, want in.

The upshot, our reality, is a world in which freedom itself faces systematic erasure. Confronted with omnipresent surveillance and increasingly sophisticated methods of manipulation, we stand to lose the last vestiges of now vanishing choices: to be tracked or not to be tracked, to act in public or private, to speak and vote and commune with one another under or free from the influence of the world’s richest corporations, which milk our lives for outsize spoils.

As Bloomberg’s under-appreciated success exemplifies, data-driven advertising is not limited to retail purchases. Growing more essential to campaigns for public office with each election cycle, surveillance capitalism imperils the freedom of voters and by extension the health of democracy, which presupposes that the people elect their leaders, and are not programmed to do so by Google, Facebook, and the increasingly effective advertisers, Russian or otherwise, to whom they pimp us out.

Weeks after the California Consumer Privacy Act, the first major legislative effort in this country to take aim at the excesses of surveillance capitalism, took effect, it may seem the US is finally taking steps to protect itself from the dangers of a society without secure information. But CCPA points to the political and economic structures that first handed the fate of American democracy and freedom over to Google and Facebook for A/B testing, structures that still ensnare us and threaten to swing 2020 from the shadows.

The story of CCPA is a study in just how modest our expectations of privacy have become and how adept Big Tech’s lobbyists are at crushing them.

After CCPA architect Alastair Mactaggart and his research team had submitted their ballot initiative to the state of California in fall 2017, Google and Facebook came knocking. Facebook asked Mactaggart to kill the private right of action, an enforcement measure that would have allowed individual consumers to sue companies in violation of the law. Google representatives encouraged the initiative’s backers to forgo a referendum decided by California voters in favor of legislation that could be hashed out in the state government, where the ad tech firms, patrons of both political parties, wield even more influence than they do over voters. When Mactaggart and his allies pushed ahead with the ballot initiative, lobbyists stoked fears that protections against data collection would undermine policing and allow terrorists to go undetected.

Facing the possibility that a more ambitious initiative would be approved by referendum, legislators drafted their own law in conversation with activists as well as lobbyists. Corporate interests signed off on the legislation, which they considered an improvement upon the “even-worse ballot initiative.”

In its final form, CCPA embodies industry efforts to undermine it. The private right of action, initially conceived as the ability of any person to take companies to task for violating any new regulation, is limited to data breaches. Only the California attorney general can bring enforcement actions to address other violations of the law, and the AG’s office said it will likely only be able to bring a handful of cases per year. In the words of Mary Stone Ross, a former CIA counterintelligence officer who drafted the ballot initiative in collaboration with Mactaggart and financier Rick Arney, the law, as it stands, is “toothless.”

Lobbying efforts intended to further curb CCPA persist. Tech industry representatives have attempted to undermine the law by undercutting workers’ rights to shield their data from employers; allowing companies to discriminate between consumers who exercise their privacy rights and those who do not by demanding data disclosure in exchange for basic benefits like discounts; and unraveling requirements for data to be “de-identified,” or anonymous. With national privacy legislation in the works, campaigns to nullify CCPA and future legislation in its image are all but certain to intensify.

Most fundamentally, CCPA is a symbol of entrenched corporate power more than privacy activism’s potential because it requires consumers to opt out of data collection when it could and should require companies to ask for the right to collect data in the first place. Surveillance remains the operating commercial and legal assumption. Privacy is the exception.

If Facebook’s response to CCPA’s implementation is any indication of how corporate America’s most powerful will respond to it, skeptics of the law’s influence have their case in point. Asked whether Facebook, which shares, but does not in the strictest sense sell, user data, will be making any significant changes as a result of CCPA, the company provided a simple answer: No.

Debating the role of money in US politics without an emphasis on data-driven advertising is nearly universal and hazardously outdated. While it marks an advance for democracy when politicians like Sanders and Warren shirk big-money fundraising in favor of individual donations, the deployment of funds to manipulate voters via surveillance capitalist methods is a bipartisan game. As long as micro-targeted political advertising remains legal, the race to appropriate its means to win elections will only accelerate, becoming commonplace for all who can afford it on the left and right.

It is cold comfort to think that progressive politicians may outsmart their reactionary opponents in this war of manipulation in certain election cycles. There is more at stake in surveillance capitalism’s increasing colonization of electoral politics than short-term wins and losses. We risk losing what remains of our most fundamental democratic right: to pick, freely, the people who represent us. No matter how progressive the message distributed through digital channels, democracy does not meaningfully endure in a system in which a combination of money, however it has been obtained, and technical savvy allows politicians to control voters.

To this, one may object that full-fledged democracy has never existed, and financial resources have always played a key role in elections. The rich have always been overrepresented in government, and advertising is a longtime staple of campaigns. Candidates must disseminate their messages by some means, and Facebook and Google are simply today’s top options.

These arguments underestimate the seismic shift signaled by the introduction of micro-targeted advertising to political campaigns. It is one thing to outspend an opponent on television ads meant to reach black voters or seniors who disproportionately watch a particular program. It is another level of manipulation entirely for a campaign to craft hundreds of personalized messages meant to convince granular groups of YouTube viewers or Facebook users with particular behaviors and identities to vote for a candidate or not vote at all. Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, who has called on digital ad firms to limit targeting options for political ads, described the risk of micro-targeted political advertising to Recode as follows:

“It allows political actors — that’s campaigns, PACs, parties — to have messages that are extremely finely targeted to a very small number of people. Therefore they can be somebody different to everybody. So to 100 people in northern Michigan, they can look different to 200 women in Manhattan, and look different to 100 African-American voters in Atlanta. We don’t want our politicians to be different people to everybody.” He added that micro-targeted ads make it exceedingly difficult to hold politicians accountable for spreading disinformation, as the media and political opponents cannot be expected to fact-check an ad campaign targeted to 100 voters in a particular Milwaukee neighborhood, especially if that campaign is deployed just days before an election.

Stamos, hardly a social justice warrior, said platforms like Facebook should not encourage the existence of data brokers like Cambridge Analytica “whose entire job is to figure out how to manipulate people.” Yet Facebook intends not only to allow micro-targeted political ads in the run-up to the 2020 election but also to let campaigns spread lies. That means Facebook is willfully opting once more to be the center of a disinformation ecosystem all but certain to disturb the results of a US election. Its lax rules will encourage another display of the most flagrantly antidemocratic behavior we saw in 2016, when Steve Bannon designed “voter disengagement” campaigns pointedly meant to undercut democracy by dissuading historically marginalized, left-leaning voters from casting ballots.

The executives at Facebook, a company that commands the attention of a fourth of the world’s population, are supplying the matches needed to set fire to the institution of popular elections. A commitment to freedom of expression is not the reason they are content to watch democracy burn.

The rise of surveillance politics, like that of surveillance capitalism, is not simply a story of Republicans versus Democrats. It is a story indissociable from the antidemocratic structure of capitalism itself, a story of those who control the means of production at a time of unprecedented wealth and skyrocketing inequality deploying mass stores of capital and political influence to ensure their continued access to cheap labor and raw materials (our data) without meaningful opposition. Capitalism’s unequal outcomes and surveillance politics work in tandem, depriving the masses of the money, time, and information necessary to participate in the governance of a society that exhausts working people to preserve a party at the top.

Democrats’ ties to Silicon Valley are long-standing and wide-ranging. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg held a blockbuster fundraiser for Obama’s reelection campaign, and the Obama White House maintained extraordinarily close ties with Google, whose employees migrated to the administration in droves and vice versa. More ominously still, the same young progressives financing Democratic campaigns this election cycle flock from top universities to Google, Facebook, and Amazon year after year, perpetuating a powwow of elites committed or sympathetic to the surveillance project in top universities, tech firms, and political offices.

The path to CCPA’s enactment shows that even when legislators in a heavily Democratic state act to tamp down the tech industry’s excesses, they do so only with the blessing of the offenders. When the federal government enforces existing standards, as when the Federal Trade Commission slapped Facebook with a record-setting $5 billion fine last year, regulators prove too timid to effect substantive change. That fine, a fraction of Facebook’s cash on hand, saw the social giant’s stock rise.

Despite trumpeting unfounded claims of anti-conservative bias on Facebook and YouTube, conservatives continue to outperform on those platforms, spreading hate and lies with impunity. Republicans seeking public office will join Democrats in spending record budgets on digital ads this year, financing the collapse of the democracy they officially vie to steward. No matter how much toxic press appears to taint them, the tech firms see their market caps rise by double-digit percentages with each passing year.

Though updated for the information age, the political and economic dangers of surveillance capitalism are far from novel. As Marx wrote in Wage Labor and Capital, lectures first given in the 1840s, wages may rise under rapid capital growth, but the gap in wealth between the rich and poor grows all the more quickly under those conditions. “The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position.” Demagogic elites, among whom Trump is the rule and not the exception, blame this decline in social position on everything but its radical cause: an economic system that transfers wealth from laborers to those already wealthy. Political rulers and twenty-first-century robber barons alike do little to nothing to halt the corruption of democracy because they profit on the very pain it causes; at the very least, their well-being is never at risk.

Under the rule of capital, elected officials fail to stand for solutions nearly ambitious enough to serve the majority of the people they represent. The Obamas, Bloombergs, and Bidens of the only viable left-leaning party in the US propose modest top-bracket tax increases when nothing less is needed than an economic overhaul, one that bans micro-targeted advertising, breaks up the monopolists, collapses corporate influence on politics, and redistributes multi-billion-dollar fortunes in a society of unconscionable capital concentration.

The early primary support for Sanders, and in a more distorted way Warren, both of whom foreground the relation between structural economic injustice and democracy’s slow demise, provides some hope for a fight against surveillance capitalism and its electoral ends. But one would have to believe that, if successful in a race shaped by surveillance this time around, President Sanders or Warren would have the foresight to put an end to the competition they will have won. Cause for skepticism is substantial. The data-driven threat to democracy is positioned to endure.

Joe Zappa

Written by

Joe Zappa

I am a PhD candidate in comparative literature and cover digital marketing and politics as a freelance journalist. joezappa614@gmail.com, @joe_zappa

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