Social media, still the property of the ruling class

Global internet infrastructure

ANTHONY RUPERT analyses the role of social media companies in capitalism and anti-capitalist resistance today.

Unstoppable growth?

‘You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed.’

These are the words of the ex-vice president for user growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, who remarked in November 2017 at a Stanford Business School event he feels ‘tremendous guilt’ for contributing to ‘tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works’. He went on to say, ‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.’

The election of US president Donald Trump and the result of the Brexit referendum are the kind of disruptions to the capitalist system concerning many academics, think tanks, psychologists and industry experts who are coming out to condemn social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, for contributing to what they see as an increasingly controlled mass media landscape.

It seemed that even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the company was caught using 50m harvested Facebook profiles to target US voters with political propaganda, nothing would be able to slow down the growth in wealth of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (who owns 29.3% of Facebook). Despite Facebook’s shares plummeting in March to a 52-week low of $149.02 per share, they closed later at $203.23. Zuckerberg, now 34 years old, was worth $86.5bn, making him the world’s fifth richest person, with tech billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates in first and second place. Technology industry continues to make up a fifth of the more than $5 trillion in wealth tracked by the Bloomberg index.

However, by July 2018, £90bn was wiped off Facebook's market value, including a hit of $16bn for Zuckerberg, after the company announced to investors user growth was slowing down due to the Cambridge Analytica data leak. The company has also had to increase costs by 50% in the last quarter, to cover increased security and policing.

Today 90% of the UK population is an active internet user (Office for National Statistics, 2018) and some research says half the population have active Facebook accounts. Despite not releasing its own statistics on usage, the industry predicts Twitter has over 12.6m active users in the UK. In 2017, about 98 percent of Facebook's global revenue was generated from advertising (The Guardian, 27 July 2017). These companies are a platform of profitable space to which access is sold to marketing firms and the private companies who rule our day to day lives. Users’ posts, likes, and clicks build up data profiles which the social media company mines in order to sell.

Facebook has a market value of $501bn, Instagram (owned by Facebook) $35bn, and Twitter $10bn. As a comparison, General Electric is said to be worth $299bn and Google $527bn. To get there Facebook took investment from the likes of Microsoft ($240m in 2007), Goldman Sachs and Russian firm Digital Sky Technologies ($500m in 2011). Goldman Sachs told investors the minimum investment level was $2m each. These stocks are now worth billions.

Spying, manipulation and interference

Not so long ago, the social media companies appeared ‘radical’ and a challenge to the old publishing monopolies of newspapers and magazines or TV networks, but today they behave like any other media corporation of the past. For Facebook, its ‘News Feed’ is a profitable news story placement service, targeting users according to their demographic and posting and is ‘the biggest driver of growth’ according to a chief financial officer. It wields great influence and high ‘conversion rates’ (users’ clicking through ads and doing what they ask) compared to other forms of online advertising.

In 2016, pro Brexit Vote Leave campaign BeLeave channelled £625,000 through a Canadian digital services firm linked to Cambridge Analytica, AggregateIQ (AIQ – owned by hedge fund CEO Robert Mercer), the firm which built Ripon. This was the software which processed the millions of harvested Facebook profiles and allowed targeted deployment through things like the Facebook News Feed. AIQ went on to receive a further £2.7m from the Vote Leave budget, which provided them with analysis ahead of the referendum. Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie solely blames the company for the Brexit result: ‘I think it’s completely reasonable to say that there could have been a different outcome in the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating’ (DCMS Committee hearing, 2018). The DUP, Vote Leave, BeLeave and Veterans for Britain all used AIQ. The Electoral Commission has now fined Vote Leave for £61,000 and referred them to the police for breaking campaign spending laws.

Wylie went on to add that Cambridge Analytica ‘go around the world and undermine the big institutions of countries trying to develop those institutions … it’s not just the data… they are an example of what modern day colonialism looks like’. In 2015, AIQ used Israeli firm Black Cube to hack the emails and medical records of Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari. AIQ also worked on a project where they took videos from Cambridge Analytica of people being brutally tortured and murdered by alleged Islamic groups in Nigeria, in order distribute them to sway political results in the country.  It is no surprise that SCL Group, the British parent company of Cambridge Analytica, which focuses on behavioural research, has contracts with the Ministry of Defence and government departments for analysing data and providing training on psychological operations. SCL announced it was closing operations in May 2018 but still currently operates.

Co-founder of hacktivist group LulzSec and PhD student at UCL, Mustafa Al-Bassam revealed in a 2017 talk how the UK government set up a URL shortening service which could ‘leak’ a user’s real name and Facebook account. His presentation goes on to show how the British government used this service and an IP Proxy service, to absorb data during the 2009 Iran protests and 2011 Syrian protests, running a number of ‘sock puppet’ (fake) accounts on Twitter to promote this activity.

It was only back in 2013 that Edward Snowden revealed the British government uses a system called Tempora, which captures all telephone calls, email messages, including Facebook entries and personal Internet history. BT and Vodafone (‘intercept partners’) were said to have given unlimited access to their networks to allow this to happen. The main tapped transatlantic fibre optic cables, in theory, delivered at the time more than 21 petabytes (21 million gigabytes) of data per day. Tempora stored all data for 3 days and metadata for 30 days. We now know that the state uses social media to create disinformation – and they call it ‘Online Covert Action’, in GCHQ speak, carrying out ‘Effects’. According to a series of leaked Snowden documents dated 2011-14, GCHQ’s previously secret unit JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, which has 120+ staff) is guided by the philosophy of ‘the 4 Ds – Deny / Disrupt / Degrade / Deceive’. The unit focuses on ‘psy-ops’, behavioural patterns, influence, language, ‘gaming’ people or groups, assessing psychological needs, and so on – what they call gathering of HUMINT (Human Intelligence - intelligence gathered by means of interpersonal contact). Some of the ‘Effects’ (disruptive actions) described in one leaked JTRIG PowerPoint presentation included: ‘Write a blog purporting to be one of their victims. Email/text their colleagues, neighbours, friends etc. Honey trap – a great option. Very successful when it works’.

According to another leaked 2011 paper on ‘Behavioural Science’ written by an academic at Defence Science and Technology Laboratory for JTRIG, the unit used digital technology to target barriers to British imperialism. For example, against the Taliban (even using fax machine hacks), but also Irish Republican groups, the governments of Zimbabwe, Argentina and Iran. It investigates cybercrime and serious crime (child abuse, trafficking, drugs etc). The document also cites the English Defence League (at their height in 2011) amongst those considered to be on the domestic target list. We can only assume this situation has changed in the last seven years with the rise of Corbyn, Momentum, and the general crisis of the system. Add to that the rapid development and increased penetration of social media into all areas of society.

The limits of social media

If social media companies are so rich, powerful and manipulative, all from gathering users’ profile data, why do users seemingly give this over with little resistance? Interaction with the service is driven by a user’s cravings, for approval within social circles. Over recent years multiple studies have shown that using social media, users are more likely to suffer from behavioural patterns like those resulting from addictions. This is exactly what social media is designed to do, as the founding president of Facebook Sean Parker commented: ‘The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them … was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” … It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology’ (Axios, 2017).

We should be reminded that not only are we being monitored, but our activity and expression on social media takes place on private property. A user’s account, which a user does not own, can be deleted due to the smallest controversy or complaint. In many regards it is inferior to print, as the working class can physically own a newspaper with some autonomy. Even a camera or photo cannot easily be taken away, but an online photo can be gone in an instant. There is a tendency for online communities associated with political movements to become exclusive; but any attempt to build a movement must always create possibilities for inclusion and organising in order to draw in those excluded from social media. Unlike a meeting in real life, social media interactions can be consequence-free and make sectarianism and opportunism easier.

Revolutionaries are realising that social media is limited. It is, at its base, a highly privatised and manipulated form of mainstream media, bread and circuses more beneficial to celebrities and corporate brands, with controlled limits for working class organisation. The primary purpose of the social media company is to flood your devices with advertisements and paid ‘news’ content. Its micro-publishing capabilities provide the surrounding for this activity to take place. Facebook has been fined a mere £500,000, or what the company makes roughly every 15 minutes, for its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This publishing platform is just like the others it replaced: promoted by the ruling class and dominated by their interests of profit and control.


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