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Social media is amazing at manufacturing our consent and it's not OK

Image: Flickr/Blue Coat Photos and www.bluecoat.com

By now you have agreed and consented to countless Terms of Use and Privacy/Data Policies within the expansive social media ecosystem. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, What's App, Snapchat, Yik Yak and many more share one major theme in common -- they all need your consent, for surveillance, data collection, intellectual property seizure -- and they find ways of getting it.

Your consent is typically accounted for by two things: one, by scrolling rapidly to the bottom of these documents and clicking "agree"; or, two, your daily, continued, sustained usage of the social media platform. Your consent is important. And it's a legal necessity. By doing these two tasks, you are allowing them to do things that may entail consequences at the end of the day.

First, you are allowing them access to your meta-data (like IP addresses, locations, dates, and other discrete forms of data) and content data (everything you post). They sometimes use content for advertising or populating consumer profiles for targeted advertisement.

I recall a friend whose face ended up on a billboard in Toronto photoshopped to a body that was not her own. Certainly creepy. She was notified by a friend -- not the company that took her photo in the first place. But she already consented to give up that photo. Facebook had made her (and you) consent to forfeit intellectual property rights well beforehand. After all, she had agreed to Facebook's demand that "you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license." I'm sure you get the gist.

Many social media platforms routinely forfeit user data to the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States and other state intelligence bodies. This is important, because even though you are Canadian -- your data is stored in servers that are typically based in the U.S. Your social media is exposed to U.S. intelligence collections.

Second, all of this data is stored and backed-up. If you delete content from Facebook, they still keep it on their servers. When your snap disappears on your friend's screen, its meta-data is backed up on their servers. In the world of social media, everything is visible, and everything persists. Worse still, because it seems to disappear after use, many users believe such data is wiped.

"We surveil you for massive profits."

In the past, legal and policy documents were riddled with institutional jargon that was inaccessible to a wider audience. This trend has changed. Now such documents are accessible and the policy is written in a conversational and engaging manner. However, with this change, it's also been synched up with advertisements and public relations dialogue. This can lead to some misleading intentions. For example: "we sell your data to anyone" becomes "we share your data with our good friends." "We surveil you for massive profits" becomes "we watch you to better serve you."

This new attempt to maintain user consent has just become a propaganda machine for corporate slogans.

Why does any of this matter? Some might say that this exchange of privacy for social media service is well worth it. However, judging by the fact that these legal and policy documents use universal statements like "intellectual property" to make ownership claims of all our creative labour, is it really? We give Facebook unhinged access to our lives, our content, our creative potential, our families, and our friends for the service of using their platform.

Further, do we have a choice in the end anyways? Most people need Facebook in order to exist in the world. Without it, you are excluded from just about every event, employment opportunity and important interpersonal connection. Facebook has become indispensable social and cultural capital. They profit off of a service that has essentially become a need. John Armitage calls this "the doctrine of compulsory appearance" -- describing the phenomenon of being drawn to participate in social media.

This is important. The branding practices of these big player social media platforms are geared around convincing users that they need their application. This is a difficult task -- one that requires balancing budgets, consumer profiles, public opinion, and constant innovation. Some platforms succeed at this -- such as Instagram and Snapchat. Some fail. We only need to look at Yik Yak, the anonymous application that innovated away from anonymity, to see how a platform can collapse.   

Social media platforms manufacture consent. They use their influence to position themselves as indispensable social tools. Many users are complicit with forfeiting privacy for access to great services. Many will say, "I have nothing to hide, and neither do you".

However, we need to change that conversation. Facebook has access to over a billion people's lives -- a billion people who forfeit privacy for usage. A billion people who people made to consent. There have been many oppressive state regimes that dreamt of such power. Now that power exists in the hands of profiteers: the power to know everything about everyone.

Mass surveillance through social media data does not end with the information you give it. Its many algorithms fish around your computer and your internet browser for all sorts of things. What do you do on your spare time? Where do you shop? What do you read? Who do you talk too? But it can easily look for other things: sexuality, political orientation, radical viewpoints, pornography.

Depending on who is in power and what is considered normal, everyone, at times, have things to hide. This is a conversation worth having. Social media isn't going anywhere. We need to find a way to hold these entities accountable to the responsible use of our data. The further we slip complacently into this new world of information gathering, the more difficult it will be to reverse when we find we've gone too far.

Kyle Curlew is an MA student in the Sociology of Surveillance at Queen’s University. He is an academic and independent journalist and blogger who is interested in new media, surveillance, science fiction and technology.

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Image: Flickr/Blue Coat Photos and www.bluecoat.com

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