Opinion | Social Media and a Surveillance Society

To the Editor:

Re “The Knowledge Coup,” by Shoshana Zuboff (Sunday Review, Jan. 31):

While there’s a whole lot of truth in Dr. Zuboff’s epic take on big data’s “epistemic coup,” her thinking reflects an underlying conviction that people can be cynically managed by repetitive exposure to machine-curated misinformation.

As someone who’s often involved in the targeting and message-making side of both brand and political campaigns, I think the evidence paints a more nuanced picture — that data-driven persuasion is generally limited to leveraging existing biases versus converting the ideologically unwashed. For proof, you don’t have to look much further than the most recent election cycle, where Democrats, despite a major digitally delivered persuasion advantage, failed to convert success at the top of the ticket into a blue wave.

It’s not that Democrats didn’t have the ability to harness teraflops of surveillance-based insights as reasons to reject Trumpian allies and enablers. It’s just that purple voters knew what they already knew and all the pejorative pixels, grievance-based GIFs and haranguing hashtags in the world weren’t going to tell them otherwise.

Take that into account and, tempting as it is, you really can’t blame surveillance capitalism for the roughly 70 percent of Republicans who counterfactually insist on #stopthesteal. They’d long since bought into Donald Trump’s claim that the only way he could lose an election was if it was rigged.

Jef Loeb
New York

To the Editor:

Social media are free; users pay for them with their personal data. Just as many apps allow users to pay for ad-free subscriptions, social media should be required to allow paid, data-collection-free subscriptions. Whether users will find this appealing, and whether they individually feel the harm of existing data collection, are open questions. But this could be a part of the solution.

Ron Meyers
New York

To the Editor:

“The Knowledge Coup” has classic complaints about business success from technology. Consumers and other businesses use whatever data they can acquire to succeed. And most do that legally. If not, then government and the courts must step in. But to limit growth because of size and effectiveness is not Americanism but socialism at best and must be avoided.

C.J. Hoppin
Peaks Island, Maine

To the Editor:

Shoshana Zuboff’s analysis of the digital conundrum we’re in — surveillance versus democracy — identifies the 9/11 attacks as a pivotal moment when all manner of technological security was set free to keep us safe. Sept. 11 turned up the volume on the politics of fear to surveil and monitor not only terrorism, but also crime, drug use and even immigration.

Social control and routine monitoring by employers of workers, by parents of children, and by the police of everyone became institutionalized and even ensconced in popular culture, ranging from news to movies to music. The Trump presidency channeled the cascading fear with conspiratorial propaganda about rigged elections.

David L. Altheide
Solana Beach, Calif.
The writer is professor emeritus at the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University and the author of “Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.”

To the Editor:

One could also argue that information in the hands of many corporations affords greater safety to the public and civil liberties than its being just in the hands of the government.

Vaidyanathan Ramaswami
Branchburg, N.J.

To the Editor:

Shoshana Zuboff has clearly identified the mechanisms by Facebook, Google and others that have privatized and monetized human behavior vis-à-vis their social network platforms and supporting algorithms that have damaged our democracy and others around the world.

What is incredibly ironic is the footnote on the web at the end of her piece: “Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.”

Gene Fisch
New York

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