[Week 7 blog post]
The (re-)negotiation of government perception of ‘the’ public.
There is a big debate among watchers of new media about how privacy is going to work as everyday life becomes increasingly digital, and lived on the web.
In this week’s ARTS2090 readings, Gillespie (2014) argues that the reaction to Facebook’s social experiment signalled “a deeper discomfort about an information environment where the content is ours but the selection is theirs.”
In the recent social experiment, Facebook opened the door for researchers to make “alterations in the News Feeds of 310,000 Facebook users, excluding a handful of status updates from friends that had either happy words or sad words, and measuring what those users subsequently posted for its emotional content” (Gillespie, 2014).
Gillespie (2014) says although the research evoked an “intense response on the part of press, academics, and Facebook users” this was just one specific instance which had been “latched” onto. This was symptomatic of a general move towards new modes, gradations and power structures of the digital age which defied the traditional neat split between public and private.
In 2012, the Snowdon leaks have shown the unprecedentedly massive scale of information and the new controls around access to that. Snowdon leaked more information than anyone before him ever had, revealing a huge state surveillance program which was often focused on innocent citizens. But the state’s overreach was brought down by one tech-savvy leaker. (None of which would have been possible in a pre-digital mass ‘public sphere’.)
In a more applied example of the emerging topography of citizens’ level of real – versus expected – privacy, Golumba (2013) explores one response triggered by Snowden’s leaks.“Among the digital elite, one of the more common reactions to the recent shocking disclosures about intelligence surveillance programs has been to suggest that the way to prevent government snooping is to encrypt all of our communications.” This approach Golumba decries, portraying it as self-serving anarchism, and pointing out that citizens using their technological nous to live outside the controls of parliamentary democracy, the constitution, (etc), is largely analogous to being a crimm in the ‘real world’.
Gillespie and Golumba both call for a more widespread debate. I agree, but also think it’s important to not that any practical policy or legal outcomes that may emerge from such a debate, will come from government. Given actual changes in a citizens real rights to privacy will be negotiated through the usual system of social power – the parliament – it is maybe more prescient to think about how corporations and government’s are thinking about us. That is, to acknowledge the government thinks about ‘us’ (citizens) as being constituted by various publics.
“Some have argued that Facebook and other social media are now a kind of quasi public spheres” Gillespie (2013) tells us. In the same way, governments operate by segmenting components of the voting public (the wealthy, the “battlers”, business) and spinning their message and policies strategically.
Government agencies now fight crime and maintain law and order online – regrettably their surveillance and profiling seems to have, in many cases, extended to the covert and indiscriminate application on ordinary, un-suspected, and unsuspecting, citizens.
Gillespie and Golumba both argue for the need for a more widespread debate – but it seems to me that debate should be about how governments and their agencies perceive ‘us’, the public. This would necessitate a move away from Habermasian perspective of a mass, relatively homogenous, ‘public sphere’ (1991) towards a more realistic understanding of modern publics as fragmented, decentralised, and often online.
Away from the ‘mass (print) media’, towards the fragmented publics of the internet and an increasingly individualistic society.
Today I happened across a VICE news article in which Cherney (2014) details how the U.S. Justice Department created a fake Facebook profile and impersonated a woman who’d been convicted of involvement in a drug-ring run by her boyfriend. She is suing, and is especially angry that her children were included in the photos uploaded to the fake account by the Justice Department operative.
What does it say about the way governments view that woman that they would think it’s okay to impersonate her and her family and obviously put them in danger because it made it look like she was cooperating with police (drug lords don’t like snitches).
And would the government have used technology to invade her privacy that way if she’d been engaged in white-collar crime?
Privacy online is part of the soup of parliament, courts, the constitution and social norms that denotes what powers the citizenry, corporations and everyone has (or doesn’t have). The internet, as well as raising new questions about public/versus private lives, raises opportunities for government to segment and position in contest the voting public, which in turn raises opportunities for abuse of less powerful groups (*read, muslims, first peoples).
Until we think about how that works, we will be one step behind on the specific issues like privacy and surveillance.
Cheney N, 2014, The DEA Is Using Facebook to Bust Drug Dealers — and Is Now Getting Sued for It, VICE News, October 10,
Gillespie T, 2014, Facebook’s algorithm — why our assumptions are wrong, and our concerns are right, Culturally Digital (BLOG), July 4,
Golumba D, 2013, Opt-Out Citizenship: End-to-End Encryption and Constitutional Governance, Uncomputing (BLOG), August 8,
Habermas J, 1991, The Structural Transformation of the public sphere – an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, MIT Press,