Social Media and Governance: The Disequilibrium of Communication and Commodification

The intersection of social media and governance present an interesting dilemma between communication and commodification, as the pull of both produces disequilibrium between and amongst the various platforms and their relation to governing structures. There is a segmented relation between the use and reproduction of human capital (as represented through data, influence and images) and the possibilities for resistance and world-building that these platforms allow. “Images, information, knowledge, affects, codes, and social relationships . . . . are coming to outweigh material commodities or the material aspects of commodities in the capitalist valorization process” as “living beings as fixed capital are at the center of this transformation, and the production of forms of life is becoming the basis of added value”[1]. The governing of the interactions of socio-economic spheres have found a new force to contend with in the form of the platform and the social media network, as issues of data management, image control, proprietary rights and arbitration become central to people’s existence on online forums. A swirling disequilibria develops between the processes of social communication outside the market/company moorings, and the processes of commodification/valorisation that pull these communicatory nodes back into the circuits of capital.

social media potential

At the heart of the matter is the type of existence people want online, particularly when it comes to their social media activity. Do they want proprietary control or are they ambivalent toward their own data so long as the platform remains free and available. “The digital surveillance economy has ballooned in size and sophistication, while keeping most of its day-to-day tracking apparatus out of view. Public reaction has ranged from muted to deeply concerned, with a good portion of those in the concerned camp feeling so overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of their privacy loss that they’re more or less reconciled to it”[2]. The realities of big data suggest something much too large to control at the individual level, at least in the sense of creating increasingly convoluted services agreements which are glorified legalese and are rarely read by the platform users. These agreements cannot truly be taken as examples of consent in the traditional understanding of its relation to governance, as one’s juridical position is fuzzy at best.

However the relation is further complicated by the two-way nature of the internet today. The nature of the internet is a complicated mixture of push and pull, of legibility and illegibility as individuals and groups have the existing ability to hide their search histories, remove cookies and block ad trackers. Further, through the advents of closed groups, darknets and other cryptographic forms, the relations of social media platforms to users isn’t the one-way broadcast hub of traditional media forms like television or newspapers where dialogue was a unidirectional push model in relation to the readers and viewers. Rather something akin to a “networked public sphere” where dialogue is developed through a “set of social practices that see individuals as participating in a debate”[3] has grown. In other words, people talk and act back through existing tools and through social communications which use platforms as vectors for particular outcomes or achievements.

This then is the disequilibrium at play. That between communication as a social activity and commodification as the process of capital valorisation. As Hardt, Negri and Carson has regularly pointed out, this movement within capitalist production toward the development of human capital, with its focus on imagery, information and knowledge is contradictory, as the objective nature of capitalist production (for the development of profit) is placed on a bed of subjectivity, as ephemeral activities become the means of aggrandisement. The regulatory questions this brings up are increasingly complex, as the social nature of this communication is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, existing in a moral vacuum. Equally, the nature of platforms means that marketisation and the ability to produce value from the subjectivity of users through imagery and knowledge can take on an increasingly dark turn.

“There are decentralized terrorists such as ISIS, who build high-visibility brands while asynchronously recruiting the like-minded. These digital recruiters blanket the internet with promises of glory and camaraderie via well-produced propaganda, then move the receptive into encrypted chat apps to continue the radicalization. The recruits pledge allegiance to the virtual caliphate in Facebook posts before driving trucks into pedestrian plazas IRL.

There are also small but highly-skilled cadres of ideologically-motivated shitposters whose skill at information warfare is matched only by their fundamental incomprehension of the real damage they’re unleashing for lulz. A subset of these are conspiratorial — committed truthers who were previously limited to chatter on obscure message boards until social platform scaffolding and inadvertently-sociopathic algorithms facilitated their evolution into leaderless cults able to spread a gospel with ease”[4].

The networked nature of resistance and routing around that these groups present show the moral vacuum at play within social media networks. While certainly the effects of fake news are overblown[5], its increasing prevalence alongside the slow death of traditional broadcast and print medias show new developments in the relations people have to information, increasing issues of confirmation bias and the development of new social filters which are difficult to penetrate. “From a structural point of view, those technologies are damaging central aspects of our political system: parliamentary control has stopped being what it was before Twitter existed; the financialization of the economy escapes the political regulation that the states exercised; we do not know what a critical citizenry might mean in an environment populated by informational garbage”[6]. But equally, do the institutions that are facing these difficulties deserve such deference, such respect in death.

The positive side of this is the increase in the ability to exit, as institutions that can be stultifying and that hold their own status quo and confirmation biases produce their own forms of social illness. The populism I noted as being the development of new nodes of political representation in governance structures developed precisely because “the intra-competitive networks of media, bureaucracy, corporate regulation, HR departments, etc.”[7] existed beforehand in their own topologies. As Carson noted with the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements and the Zapatista insurrection, the ability for social media to act as a vector for the development of movements for change is unparalleled. To have access to cryptographic means of communication means that illegibility to institutions becomes second nature, allowing for nascent exit rights to grow. Equally, exit from “the destruction and securitisation of public and democratic space, the centralisation of political power and the removal of control of basic areas of life, including education and housing”[8], as well as the destruction of meaning surrounding family and community that were present during the 2011 London riots, allow for the vectoring of violence within social media networks as rioters were able to coordinate through BBM and Twitter. The ability to exit either through means of counter-institution building or through means of insurrection present new governance methods alternative to both states and markets as traditionally conceived, as platforms act as the infrastructure for these developments, having varied degrees of control that present different problems. It means there an increasing patchwork of alternative institutions and social networks that allow for the development of forms of alterity, just as much breaking status quo and confirmation biases as it does develop them.

Thus the question of regulation splits into frustratingly ambiguous questions: 1. who controls what? 2. what of the disequilibrium? In terms of control, this isn’t just a matter of who controls one’s data, but also who regulates these modular institutions, and can they be regulated. The state in its modern form cannot decide whether things like Facebook or Amazon are even monopolies, let alone whether they constitute parallel forms of socio-political power. And one need only see the questions asked of Mark Zuckerberg by Congressmen to see the incredible ignorance there is of these platforms amongst legislators. The reality seems to be that these platforms need to be treated as juridical entities, something beyond your standard company. Competition law could help to some extent, in maintaining open and competitive markets in the production of media, limiting the effect social media has on the dissemination of news and the control of advertising. This may mean making service agreements legible, and introducing explicit opt-ins rather than vague opt-outs. However this can only so far. How can you break up a Facebook or a Google. What would that entail and what would be separated. And this leads onto the second question. Is there equilibrium between platforms as processes of social action and as subjective production units for profit making?

As Gibson-Graham have noted, the capitalist process of valorisation is overdetermined i.e. it is made of so many contradictions and discourses that it is largely indefinable as a coherent one-way process[9]. Social media platforms exist in much the same way, as something between governor and entrepreneur that is not wholly definitive. The lines are blurred and they will most likely remain this way. Thus in talking of regulatory pathways, the language will remain incredibly vague and varied. The supposed contradiction between collective and individual proprietary control (data as public property vs. data as saleable information on markets)[10] is largely a false dichotomy, harking back to the concept of markets vs. states so pathetically prevalent in political economy discourse. “Rather than individuals being responsible for the selling of their data, a national data fund would collect (anonymised) public data, as well as any (anonymised) private data that people might wish to share. Ownership of this data would always remain with the collective, and differential levels of access would be provided. For researchers, they might be given open and free access to the healthcare data of a country, fostering the flourishing of medical insights and developments. Likewise, other public bodies might be given open and free access to relevant data (e.g. a public health body could be given access to transportation data in order to manage and reduce localised air pollution problems). And for the global tech giants, any access to this data would come at a high cost for them”[11]. But how is this any different from a layered subscription service, where some things are free but higher levels of content require payment for access. The values may be different but the structure remains the same. This is certainly important for regulatory valuation, but it still allows for commodification as people can remove data, either voluntarily or through non-agreeable ways such as hacking or using cryptographic tools. Data markets could and would develop in this system, as social influencers increase their influence and companies/individuals find route arounds.

Equally other regulatory methods present similar problems. The concept of regulating platforms as fiduciaries (“they must act in their charges’ best interests, and when conflicts arise, must put their charges’ interests above their own”[12]) suggests a decentralisation of juridical authority away from state legislation, akin to the feudal patchwork of different corporate forms that rivalled kingdoms and empires for political control. Thus in regulating platforms as distinct units, you increase the possibility for regulatory autonomy and the removal from direct control. By letting “platforms make decisions based on what their users want”[13], they remove control over concepts like information distribution, definitions of inclusivity and ownership. Placing this in relation to platforms like Amazon and Alibaba, this means increasingly they move from monopolistic competitors to governing gateways in retail markets, as they hold decisions over distribution methods and the policies enacted upon sellers. As a parallel development, the recent introduction of GDPR and its effect on international and national data laws allows for the potential variability of application in relation to “businesses and government, meaning different regulatory regimes and competitive arbitrage”[14] by defining institutions as data-holders and allowing for interpretation through the vague language of the legislation. Through government’s own regulatory methods, they increase the potential autonomy of platforms in relation to users, as well as subsequently increasing the potential insurrectionary use of platforms for multiple purposes.

The disequilibrium that exists in this equation of commodification and communication won’t go away. The reality of capitalist valorisation means that the quantification of networked public spheres still allows for their qualities to be developed and honed in independent directions. Platforms act as both springboards for alterity and the means for monopolisation. They increase exit amongst the platform owners in some senses, and amongst the users in others. “The small mobile units and flexible structures of post-Fordist production correspond to a certain degree to the polycentric guerrilla model, but the guerrilla model is immediately transformed by the technologies of post-Fordism. The networks of information, communication, and cooperation—the primary axes of post-Fordist production—begin to define the new guerrilla movements”[15]. The next question becomes whether this disequilibrium holds, or spills over into conflictual relations as non-state actors and networked guerrillas exploit these platforms for recruitment and organisation, and platforms themselves monopolise socio-economic spheres thus increasing polarisation and forcing forward new regulatory avenues for change. “Social network sites and the diffusion of (proprietary) social plug-ins have turned the social relation itself into the content of new computational procedures”[16]. The platform as a method of governance sits between the apodicticity of the status quo and the utopian potential of new socio-economic alternatives.

[1] Kevin Carson, The Desktop Regulatory State

[2] https://blogs.harvard.edu/jzwrites/2018/10/29/how-to-exercise-the-power-you-didnt-ask-for/

[3] Kevin Carson, The Desktop Regulatory State

[4] https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2018/11/28/the-digital-maginot-line/

[5] http://timharford.com/2019/02/why-there-is-no-need-to-panic-about-fake-news/

[6] http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/siris-decision/

[7] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2019/01/27/politics-of-nodes/

[8] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/while-we-watch-their-streets-burn-a-reflection-on-the-2011-uk-riots-nearly-5-years-on/

[9] J.K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics

[10] http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/SOCIALWEALTHFUND_AUTONOMY.pdf

[11] http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/SOCIALWEALTHFUND_AUTONOMY.pdf

[12] https://blogs.harvard.edu/jzwrites/2018/10/29/how-to-exercise-the-power-you-didnt-ask-for/

[13] https://blogs.harvard.edu/jzwrites/2018/10/29/how-to-exercise-the-power-you-didnt-ask-for/

[14] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/08/24/the-hobbesian-jungle-over-leviathan/

[15] Kevin Carson, The Desktop Regulatory State

[16] http://effimera.org/red-stack-attack-algorithms-capital-and-the-automation-of-the-common-di-tiziana-terranova/

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