Platform power

The great hope attached to networked forms of digital media was that they would make for better democratic participation, and with that bring more freedom. The past two decades seem historically significant because of the opening up of technologies that expand public expression. The utopian view of digital culture was really dominant in the first decade of this century. It was a kind of orthodoxy. Digital media were often taken in popular, political and academic debate to be somehow inherently democratic. In a basic way, it is true. Smartphones and social media do allow ordinary people to express themselves in new ways. Message boards, then blogs, then social media sites were seen as an infrastructure of democratic expression and participation.

This seemed to reach a kind of historical high-point in the late noughties. The Obama campaign of 2008 propagated the mythology that digital media were not just inherently democratic, but even disposed toward progressive political causes and ideologies. The professed corporate ideology of firms like Google and Facebook leant progressive, and conservative forces appeared ill-at-ease in the emerging culture of social media. Elsewhere around the world, political events like the Twitter revolution in Iran in 2009, and the series of political upheavals that followed in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere during the Arab Spring added further to the mythology of digital media as somehow a hard-coded democratic technology. In this popular mythology, digital media platforms seemed to somehow give expression to democratic voices.

Almost a decade on, this all seems kind of quaint. In the present moment, we find ourselves having to reckon with the profound changes digital platforms have brought to our public culture. While they represent the greatest democratisation of public speech in history, they simultaneously mark the greatest commercialisation of public culture in history, and the epochal reformatting of public culture as data that machines can process. Participation in digital networks opens us up to experiments with our cultures, minds, moods and bodies.
Jodi Dean describes this configuration as communicative capitalism. The offer of expanding opportunities to participate in public culture, the construction of these opportunities as empowering, and yet they are captured within digital enclosures that profit from them. Here’s how Dean puts it.

On the one hand, networked communication technologies materialize the values heralded as central to democracy. Democratic ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation are realised in and through expressions and intensifications of global telecommunication networks. On the other hand, the speed, simultaneity, and interconnectivity of electronic communications produce massive distortions and concentrations of wealth as communicative exchanges and their technological preconditions become commodified and capitalised.

Digital media, lo and behold, didn’t turn out to be the solution to age old questions about how humans can organise their shared lives together.

Have you heard of Anonymous?

An online network that sporadically self-organises and coordinates forms of activism like leaking classified materials, hacking corporate and government websites, doxing people by exposing their personal information and publicly shaming sex offenders.

They accompany their actions with videos like this one.

Anonymous are a kind of mirror image of the hopeful, utopian and optimistic account of digital media that emerged, and dominated public life, from the mid-1990s through the first decade of this century. Anonymous are not formed around agreed upon values and tactics. They have no leader. They have no formal organisational structure. They morph and change. They engage in activities we might recognise as having a social justice spirit, while also engaging in deeply offensive and criminal actions. They seem in part of encompass the hopeful, progressive, populist, democratising spirit often attributed to digital culture, mixed together with its capacity to generate offensive pranks, chaos and mayhem. And so, via them, we can see a kind of alternative history of digital media and the ways in which it might empower and oppress, construct and corrode.

The cultural anthropologist Gabrielle Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, the most detailed portrait and critical examination of Anonymous, wrote this in a recent online debate about internet activism and trolls. ‘Anonymous was particularly potent… for two reasons: insisting on a politics of collectivism… and their direct action, aka, hacking and leaking levelled against sleazy firms and government.’ She goes on to explain that Anonymous supported movements such as Occupy and the Arab Spring. They were behind hacking of governments, police departments and sleazy security and intelligence firms in the US, Canada, Italy and all over Latin America. And, they undertook ‘operations against police brutality, homelessness, rape culture, Nazis, and for the environment’.

Anonymous are difficult to describe. And, that’s part of the point I’m trying to develop here about how power works on digital media platforms. Anonymous first attracted widespread attention with an action against the Church of Scientology in 2008. The Church of Scientology tried to sue websites hosting a leaked video of Tom Cruise giving an hysterical and hilarious pep-talk to members of the church. Anonymous reacted to this suppression of free speech. Their actions included pranks like faxing black documents that used up ink in fax machines in Scientology offices to Distributed Denial of Service attacks on Scientology websites. The following year, Anonymous became involved in the Arab Spring. They provided publicity, information and computer support for activists in North Africa as they rebelled against their governments.

Over the following years Anonymous doxed accused rapists, most famously in Steubenville, Ohio in 2012. They carried various actions in support of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.  They shut down various MIT websites in 2013 in memory of Aaron Swartz after he died.  They hacked various government websites in acts of protest and they also hack the websites of political and religious organisations such as ISIS and the Westboro Baptist church.  And, they have been known to seek out and attack child pornography websites.  Gabriella Coleman says “Anonymous is like an antialgorithm: hard to predict and difficult to control”.  The term ‘anti-algorithm’ gets at something important. In the age of media platforms, public life seems increasingly subject to forms of algorithmic control, where data-processing engineers and shapes public life in the interests of the powerful. In opposition to this, Anonymous disrupt these systems of algorithmic control by hacking them and creating chaos.

Anonymous here offer a kind of counter-narrative of digital media. They illustrate that there was always something much more complicated happening than the simplistic idea that digital media were creating smoother, more efficient, more empowering forms of democratic public life. Anonymous seem to be symptomatic of a range of competing impulses within digital culture. Let me point to two critical ones.

Firstly, in Anonymous we see arguably the key contradiction of digital media for those interested in a functioning progressive democracy: a commitment to social justice, collectivism and direct action; but also the decomposition of structures that give public life order, build solidarity and make shared understandings of the world possible. On this point, I think we can compare Anonymous with Facebook. As in, Facebook claim to be a great facilitator of public culture, but it seems more and more apparent that during the 2016 US Presidential election they profited from selling thousands of dark social ads to a shadowy Russian firm with ties to the Kremlin. Facebook have admitted ‘The ads ‘appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum' including race, immigration and gun rights. We might say the Russian operatives were, like Anonymous, doing for the lulz. Being trolls. Sowing mayhem. The critical point though is this, Facebook profited from it.

And, secondly, Anonymous demonstrated that politics in the digital era would be as much about who controlled the infrastructure through which data are collected, stored, processed and distributed as it would be about who got to speak and who got heard. When Anonymous did things like dox powerful people and corporations, or build botnets that crashed corporate and government websites, they were taking aim at the infrastructure that corporations and governments were using to engineer and control public culture.

There are other activists in the first decade of this century who illustrate this point too. I think particularly of Aaron Swartz. Check out the great documentary about his life The Internet’s Own Boy. Swartz was a programming wunderkind. Involved from a young age in open-source and public software movements. He did a lot of things, but one of the important things was using his ability to code to make, sometimes constructive, sometimes disruptive, political moves.

Swartz was not nearly as radical as Anonymous. His views and activism fit much closer to well-established democratic traditions. But, Swartz and Anonymous share something important in common: they saw digital media platforms as data-processing infrastructure, as well as platforms for public speech. This had two consequences for their activism. First, they undertook direct actions that sought to use, exploit and disrupt the infrastructure itself. And second, they understood that power struggles in the digital era would be about who had access to, and control, over the infrastructure itself.

Powerful actors understand these points too. If we look back at the Obama campaign of 2008, it seems historically important not just because of the hopeful grassroots rhetoric, but because Obama – and particularly his strategist David Axelrod – understood that digital media could be used to undertake a highly orchestrated form of data-driven campaigning. This would enable the participatory energies and commitments of a large grassroots network to be controlled and directed in new ways. And, it would enable campaigns to target voters in precise and highly specified ways. Obama and Axelrod understood from the get-go that digital media were data-driven logistical infrastructure as much as they were networks of participatory expression. The thread I’m drawing out here is that the early narratives of frictionless, utopian democratic online culture, of course, haven’t been borne out.

And, yes, of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Since the late-1990s Jodi Dean has been describing digital media as symptomatic of ‘communicative capitalism’, a formation that ‘values the fast circulation of everything’. Talking to Doug Henwood on Behind the News in 2017, Dean explained that ‘on social media this makes people write in ways that are going to get hits, shares, likes, forwards, little hearts…’. Online life now is largely formatted by a small number of major commercial media platforms. These platforms are engineered to generate valuable forms of attention for advertisers. Powerful actors like major political parties, brands and governments see these platforms as logistical infrastructure for monitoring and steering populations. But this relationship is an increasingly complicated one.

Platforms like Facebook and Google need to manage relationships with the brands, political parties and governments that fund and regulate them. This leads us to what seems to be one of the instructive lessons of the 2016 Presidential campaign. One way to look at the criticism of Facebook for propagating fake news and abetting Russian disinformation is that powerful actors – like establishment media and political parties – have decided Facebook is disrupting the democratic processes that used to work in their interests. Facebook is creating forms of political communication that operate outside of established norms. In 2008 the popular mythology around Obama was that Facebook was a tool for grassroots mobilisation, in 2016 the rhetoric is that Facebook is a tool of misinformation and manipulation.

There are two critical issues. Firstly, platforms have engineered a kind of public communication where people can be immersed in an endless loop of information that confirms already help views and feelings. And, secondly, platforms are creating forms of public speech that are not open to appropriate scrutiny. In September 2017, The Washington Post reported that special prosecutor Denis Mueller – tasked with investigating Russian interference in the Presidential election – had obtained information from Facebook about Russian operatives buying ‘dark social’ ads. CNN reported that ‘Facebook informed Congress last week that it had identified 3,000 ads that ran between June 2015 and May 2017 that were linked to fake accounts. Those accounts, in turn, were linked to the pro-Kremlin troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.’

Dark posts are promoted posts only visible to those who have been targeted. They are not open to public scrutiny. This is a problem in the case of political advertising because it falls outside of established norms, and often regulations, that require adequate disclosure of paid political messages by media organisations. Unlike broadcast media, platforms offer data-driven, targeted and covert access to individuals at massive scale. Digital media platforms are participatory, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently democratic. What we are participating in is making our lived experience available to data-processing, experiments and manipulation.

The capacity of platforms to shape public life has been driven, over the past decade, by the strategic effort to create evermore refined slices of audience attention and engagement for sale to advertisers – be they corporate brands, political campaigns, or foreign operatives.
The kinds of public speech and advertising they have created in the past decade are not just mostly unregulated. They are also conceptually different. The platforms have created a kind of speech that doubles as data that trains machines to experiment with and shape public life.
It seems that one consequence of the 2017 Presidential regulation will be a kind of reckoning with platforms as public infrastructure.

Here’s Jim Rutenberg writing in The New York Times.

This much should be clear: arguments that sites like Facebook are merely open ‘platforms’ – and not ‘media companies’ that make editorial judgments about activity in the digital worlds they created – fall woefully flat when it comes to meddling in our democracy. The platforms have become incredibly powerful in a short amount of time. With great power has come great profit, which they are only too happy to embrace; the great responsibility part, not always so much.

We might come to see them as socio-technical infrastructure. We build and use these platforms, they shape our lives together. The questions that now press upon us are now ‘are digital media platforms democratic?’ but rather ‘how should we make these platforms democratic?’ and ‘how might we move democracy beyond the platform architecture?’

Digital media platforms seem most constructive when they make a community present to itself, to use Jodi Dean’s formulation. And, this seems most important for communities that are otherwise marginalised in public space, dispersed, or vulnerable. But, confined only to online forms of affirmation, these communities create soothing and commercially lucrative formations of attention that circulate wholly within the platform. The big question, is whether that fosters or disperses meaningful forms of public life beyond the platform.

So, the challenge is two-fold. We must now take up the difficult work of reforming the platforms. They must be contained by our democratic and public culture, not the other way around. And, to do that, we must avoid mistaking the forms of self-soothing affirmation the platforms foster for the work of building public culture and shared lives together.