Surveillance capitalism, a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, is the business of taking people’s data and using it to make a profit. All aspects of human experience are thus turned into data (enumerated) to be used and sold to business, potentially affecting our free will.

Google was the trailblazer in this field and now the digital Leviathan, Facebook, has its own plans and manifesto. Allegedly, they already have an algorithm which can forecast our views better than our spouses and they want its users to be a new global community, feeding Facebook with their data and living in a magnified echo chamber and members of a new ideological movement.

To this end, Facebook’s recent announcement of an Instagram, aimed for young people from six years of age, sent shivers down my spine. This was also heavily criticised and attacked abroad by lawyers as well as international organisations. Mind you, the concept of giving younger children access to a social media platform is not new to Facebook as, in 2017, they had already introduced Messenger Kids. This is still available and in 2019, it came under fire when it was discovered that a design flaw allowed thousands of kids to enter group chats with individuals their parents did not approve of.

It’s also pertinent to point out that Facebook also allows business (advertisers) to advertise to the younger generation on their platform, gambling products, alcohol, and smoking products (research by Reset Australia). People have learnt not to trust Facebook and its creator; let us not forget the 50 million Facebook profiles harvested in the Cambridge Analytica scandal as well as the recent RSF case  in France (reporters without borders) against Facebook for deceptive commercial practices.

A recent book by Sarah Frier, No Filter, is of relevance here. In this book, Zuckerberg, who bought Instagram from Systrom in 2012 for an (at the time) astonishing $1 billion, is portrayed as a sort of villain. A character who is controlling, cruel and maniacally focused on control, profit and growth. This at the expense of any other collateral damage in his path of dominion. In hindsight, with Instagram’s acquisition, Facebook was presenting the unknowing society, as a protagonist, to act one of his master creation, Facebook’s Greek tragedy.

This Greek tragedy continued to unfold over the years, and we witnessed several consecutive acts, but now we are reaching the climax. Zuckerberg, reminiscent of Zeus, is asking us to sacrifice our younger generation, and future society, to him on Mount Lykaion.

Our kids aged six will be baptised to Zuckerberg’s panopticon

Facebook’s real goal here is to expand its lucrative and highly profitable Instagram franchise to an under-13s demographic. I will not mince my words here, if Facebook is allowed to tap into this new segment, aside from having the potential to harvest the data of children as young as six and profiting, it will also introduce these kids to a merciless leviathan which will transform them into the product of its capitalist ethos. This poses serious threats to their privacy, health and well-being as well as to the future of our society.

It is no hidden secret that Facebook uses what is called persuasive design and variable reinforcement techniques with their users, impairing their autonomy as well as freedom on the platform, which aside from keeping them hooked to the platform, also alters their behaviours to maximise on Facebook’s business case. In 2017, former Facebook president Sean Parker also admitted to these practices.

In 2019, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office published the Online Harms White Paper, describing concerns around designed addiction and excessive screen time used in online products by adults, and citing risks of addictions and depression among others. Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s Competition Commissioner, also acknowledged that these techniques are designed to create a form of addiction, albeit the EU under the GDPR allowed children as young as 13 to be exposed to these techniques.

Just imagine what the risks for six-year-olds could be. Facebook’s hope here is to harness the activity and data of our children to identify key moments of sensitivity at a very young age, and thus increase the chances of behaviour modification to maximise its business model. Our kids aged six will be baptised to Zuckerberg’s panopticon, through Instagram; then at 13, they will graduate to Facebook, having already been harvested, programmed and assimilated to Facebook’s needs. Freedom of free will, self-determination and the ability to discern of these minors would be massively diluted.

We have kept our eyes wide shut for too long and if we continue to be complacent while this is already happening around us, we are writing our own Greek tragedy, where our dignity and autonomy is carved out from our lives and we end up in what Franklin Foer describes as a world without mind.

Ian Gauci, Managing partner, GTG Advocates & Afilexion Alliance

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us