Many of us own smart phones and computers which are connected to the internet. A large portion of the Western world has internet connections which are active at all times. If you own a smart phone, there is a significant chance that it is operating non-stop, and is only turned off momentarily when it doesn't function properly.
The internet is an incredibly important and powerful communication service which shapes and guides virtually every facet of our lives. It was not so long ago that phones were things which sat on a table at home, and computers were machines that sat immovably on a desk somewhere in your house, if you had one, or on your desk at work.
In the late 20th century, we had much more clearly defined rules for when and how to use computer and communication systems. We also had great amounts of community resources put into explaining how to use computer systems, and there existed a strong social norm that computer systems were something that required some level of education in order to use them properly.
To my mind, none of the caution and preparation that we used to go through as a society when using computer systems exists anymore. We do not ask the question “why should we use a computer or the internet to do this?” when it comes to carrying out virtually any activity anymore.
We hail taxis with the internet. We order food with the internet. Our university courses are marked automatically by computer systems with very little human interaction. Our phones are constantly transmitting push notifications to us at all times. The amount of time we spend looking at computer screens now is so great that we develop sleeping problems.
In this Alliance Voices piece, I want to argue that we place too much emphasis on internet and computer systems in order to do our party work. In many cases, unhealthy and unscientific assumptions are made in every sector of our society, including in our party, about the so called benefits of computers and the internet. In this piece, I will argue that computers and the internet should be used with a reasonable degree of caution and incredulity. I will argue that we too readily and enthusiastically resort to using computers and the internet in order to carry out important party objectives.
I think computer systems are now one of the major forces under global capitalism which cause humans to become alienated. Global financial systems are placed in the care of machine-controlled algorithms. These massive computer systems control how large portions of global capitalism work. The power of the internet can also affect our emotions, as well as our material well-being. The internet has been proven to powerfully delude us about how intimately we actually interact and know our closest friends. Social media systems like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube use computer algorithms which decide when and how you will see content has the potential to powerfully affect your emotional and psychological states for prolonged periods. In fact it has been proven that Facebook deliberately and repeatedly shows you content which causes profound sadness and anxiety in order to make sure you keep using the platform, so they can keep making money.
Computer systems are not just forces for alienation under capitalism. They are now some of the key infrastructure that the global capitalist class use to nakedly exert force and control over the global working class. Computer systems like Google, the most popular search engine on the internet, deliberately censor search results in order to prevent the exercise of free speech. Facebook, for instance, temporarily removed Telesur's (https://www.facebook.com/teleSUR/) official capacity to disseminate information on its system. Facebook also deliberately and automatically censors left wing content, and deletes entire left wing communities from its system on a regular basis.
Facebook was recently summoned before the US Senate to explain why they had deliberately sold the metadata of millions of users to right wing think tanks and political campaign groups. The US Senate forced them to describe the ways in which Facebook surveils its users, and Facebook claimed that these were the ways in which it gathered and stored data from its users:
information from “computers, phones, connected TVs, and other web-connected devices,” as well as your “internet service provider or mobile operator”
“mouse movements” on your computer
“app and file names” (and the types of files) on your devices
whether the browser window with Facebook open is “foregrounded or backgrounded,” and time, frequency, and duration of activities
information about “nearby Wi-Fi access points, beacons, and cell towers” and “signal strength” to triangulate your location (“Connection information like your IP address or Wi-Fi connection and specific location information like your device’s GPS signal help us understand where you are,” said a Facebook spokesperson.)
information “about other devices that are nearby or on their network”
“available storage space”
“purchases [users] make” on off-Facebook websites
contact information “such as an address book” and, for Android users, “call log or SMS log history” if synced, for finding “people they may know” (Here’s how to turn off contact uploading or delete contacts you’ve uploaded.)
information “about how users use features like our camera” (The Facebook spokesperson explained, “In order to provide features like camera effects, we receive what you see through camera, send to our server, and generate a mask/filter.”)
“location of a photo or the date a file was created” through the file’s metadata
information through your device’s settings, such as “GPS location, camera, or photos”
information about your “online and offline actions” and purchases from third-party data providers
“device IDs, and other identifiers, such as from games, apps or accounts users use”
“when others share or comment on a photo of them, send a message to them, or upload, sync or import their contact information”
This level of surveillance by Facebook is totally unconscionable, and makes it far too dangerous to ever use for far-left political organising, let alone for personal reasons. Facebook, and I assume also Twitter and Google, are collecting so much data about you that they are never safe to use. The reason why Google, Twitter, and Facebook collect so much information about you is because of some dangerous research that was performed by a Polish psychology PhD student who was studying in Britain. He proved that with a sufficiently large amount of metadata collected from social media, you can predict incredibly sensitive and private information about any particular person, given their social media profile.
Combined with large samples of psychometric tests, 'big data', that is, large amounts of social media metadata, can be used to predict someone's gender with a high degree of accuracy, as well as their willingness to vote for particular nation's major political parties. This is exactly what the company Cambridge Analytica did during the 2016 US Presidential Election, when they purchased large amounts of social media metadata from Facebook.
Donald Trump contracted Cambridge Analytica to manipulate large sections of the US voting population using the incredibly private and personal data Facebook had collected about its users. The manipulation that Cambridge Analytica effected was carried out at a subliminal, non-conscious behavioural level. Cambridge Analytica's internet advertisements were deliberately targeted to manipulate the emotional disposition of particular users that fitted a profile that was predicted by the highly accurate empirical patterns in the social media metadata.
I submit that for Socialist Alliance, using Facebook, Google, and Twitter to conduct our party business is fighting on the ruling class's terms.
We should be highly cautious about using Facebook, Google, and Twitter, because they are for-profit, dictatorial communication systems.
I think we need to use computer systems like the internet with a great deal of caution. We need to use the internet with a great deal of measure and deliberation, because it is very dangerous and could hurt us.
Facebook and other forms of mainstream social media are also a poor tool for organising. From personal experience, spruiking party events publicly on Facebook are a waste of time. The Facebook algorithm does not show our party events to anyone who isn't coming anyway, or is likely to change their mind and come after seeing the party event advertisement. Even one-to-one private messages on social media do not motivate people to action to come to rallies or party events.
The common sense attitude that mainstream social media is a powerful and revolutionary force for democratic free speech is completely unfounded. Social media certainly does not help revolutionary left forces grow and flourish, whatever effect their massive and unethical surveillance has. The internet itself may be a powerful tool for political democracy, but certainly not within the control mechanisms of Silicon Valley and the capitalist ruling class.
In-person political conversations should be our absolute priority in organising. A close second should be secure live phone calls and encrypted private messaging. These are, in my experience, the three most effective tools for far-left organising. I think we should massively de-emphasise the efforts we put into having a presence on mainstream social media. It does not assist our organising, and is completely insecure as I have described above.
Computer systems are tools, which help humans achieve some end. Computers and the internet are not ends in themselves, as is commonly assumed today. Further, the end to which the global capitalist system claims the internet is currently put is a lie.
Computers and the internet are incredibly powerful tools, and for that reason they are dangerous.