“ I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us” . That was John Perry Barlow in 1997 when the Internet was a space of boundless possibilities and a beacon of limitless freedom.
From those dizzying days we are now in the troughs, facing the dismal prospects of Internet addiction, cyber manipulation, and worse. How did we get from there to here? Part of the problem, I submit, is the resurrection of a colonial-style criminality and its deployment in the digital era. The name of the game is outrage. Many classify the outrage economy as a subset of the attention economy. My position is slightly different. I argue that the outrage economy operates like a colonial economy, to extract — our affect. That’s the real gold. Especially for cyber picaroons.
In this essay, I make two connections — between the economy of affect generated by digital media and the shady operators who are stakeholders in this space. I’ll try to keep a complex story simple but it is layered, so hang on as I take you on this analytical journey. This is where history and liberal arts training can help as much as technical skills (please note: I’m not going to pit liberal arts against tech here).
History never repeats but it offers great insights. None of my explanations are technical and there will be no discussion of ARPANET, TCP/IP, Usenet, or even the French Minitel. My training is in history, my interests are in literature, and my mind’s eye is focused on historical connections, narrative juxtapositions and their instructional value for today’s problems. In fact, the thoughts for this piece came to me after reading an interesting book on pirates in the early modern Atlantic, and connecting it to reports like these about people in India and Macedonia using fake news to earn money. Yes, corsairs are back again, like Thomas Tew and Blackbeard and Francis Drake (who was both privateer and pirate). And like Walter Raleigh, favorite of English Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603).
What does the pirate of the Internet high seas want? The same thing as his colonial predecessor — easy money. The rise of the new pirates coincided with the development of a digital economy of affect. The new economy of affect was an ocean of financial opportunities — for enterprising merchants and for pirates.
What makes the Internet susceptible to colonial-style privateers? There are two aspects to this: one structural, the other historical. First, all electronic communications — in which category I place the Internet — has the inherent potential to be transnational and/or global. Consider radio and television and their ability to cross national boundaries unless specifically blocked or handicapped by signal or bandwidth or other infrastructure capacity. In other words, the Internet always had the potential to function globally — either to empower and enrich people across the world through connectivity or, more ominously, to work like a colonial circulatory regime.
Second, the rise of a global communications platform/s from the 1990s witnessed the historic rise of all sorts of stakeholders who used the Internet’s mass distribution potential for very varied purposes. The global potential of communications also facilitated the rise of a certain type — the digital huckster, the e-buccaneer, the cyber marauder. The easiest way to understand this creature is to understand his motives. We’ve all had it slightly wrong. Fake news isn’t about news. It’s about money. Once we keep our eye on the money, a lot of inexplicable and erratic cyber behavior begins to make more sense. We can even understand the recent turbulence in politics. Just follow the money trail.
By the time 2012 rolled around, the Internet wasn’t your older child’s dial-up connection anymore (or yours). From 2006 onward, millions of people had been placing their opinions, emotions, their affect on the Internet for everyone to read and respond to on forums and platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Affect was used by lots of people for many different things. Neoliberals and neomarxists alike used affect to construct transnational subjectivities and circulate these over cyber networks in the 2000s. Think of all the online petitions you’ve signed since the format began. Both the social media platforms in the spotlight of recent bad PR went global only about a decade ago — Twitter in 2006 and Facebook also in 2006 (when it allowed anyone 13 and older to create an account).
There it sits on the Internet — gobs and gobs of beautiful, qualitative, affective data, all freely offered and available for use. For three sectors in particular this was and remains an unbelievable bonanza — advertising, politics, and the emergent subculture of e-rogues. I’ll set aside for now another interested party in this data windfall — security, intelligence, and surveillance regimes worldwide. For, that’s a wholly different beast with different motives, and deserves several posts unto itself. I’m also not focusing on blockchain rogues, a rising criminal category in the new tech world. Back to my three categories and their relationship to the economy of affect.
For advertisers and political machines, affect is deeply embedded in their modus operandi. Advertisers are in the business of gauging emotions and consumer psychology. Facebook moved early to monetize its huge data advantage. Unsuspecting users were either blindsided or had to adapt hastily (yes, dear readers, the Facebook data privacy story is an old one playing on an endless loop). Still, what social media platforms did with our data was not illegal if you followed the letter of the law (we all signed up without looking too deeply into the terms); it was very, very unethical, though, and Facebook and others need to be held accountable for their data deceptiveness. Advertisers seeking to place ads for maximum impact, though, are NOT criminals.
Politics also depends on gauging affect. Interpreting public sentiment and affect is very useful to politicians. Social media platforms not only help push political messages online but in return politicians too get qualitative feedback that helps hone their political campaigns. The 2012 Barack Obama campaign was a textbook case of effective social media use for electoral mobilization. All harmless thus far. Political communication is not a crime.
What transformed borderline shady and/or annoying online activity (it’s still around) was the 2008 global economic downturn in general and the finances of the economy of affect in particular. Several crises intersected. There was the near-collapse of the banking sector, a huge global recession, and the ongoing crisis of media finances. Everyone struggled to make money in North America and Europe. Jobs were lost and the global economy teetered. Sentiment changed from “the world is flat” hyperbole to dark pessimism and a contracting of economic horizons from the global to the local. Expats came home.
The center of world economic power shifted from the west to the east. Economies once labeled emerging now became cash-rich zones where millions of people engaged with the digital economy for the first time as mobile phone coverage grew and new customers went on the Internet through their phones, leapfrogging dial-up and cable modems altogether. Western corporations still had cash and wanted to deploy it somewhere. Many went east and south. Where the money went, so did the crooks. That’s been happening since money was invented.
So far, cybercrime operated in what we consider tangibles — identity theft, financial fraud, pornography, and spreading viruses to make money via ransomware. That sector still exists and always will. But the economy of affect created fresh opportunities for still more wealth, legitimate and illegitmate. Some of these opportunities are cornered by crooks. And this is where the model of early modern pirates becomes relevant. And why politics is suddenly so crazy everywhere.
After the 2008 downturn, what remained of the globalization banquet in the West (or global north if you like) were the trillions of sentences expressing all sorts of emotions and opinions, left on web forums and social media sites. Millions of new Internet users in the emerging east and south began to contribute their affect for the first time to local and global platforms and forums. Like uncut gemstones waiting for a jeweler to add value, these expressions and unfiltered opinion lay scattered on hundreds of thousands of digital hillsides, free for the picking. Jackpot for advertising and political campaigns. And for crooks who could make both sectors work for them.
I mentioned Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake at the beginning. Let’s return to them because the recent ethical dodginess has, like Raleigh, a certain social profile. It’s a very British profile: the gentleman-adventurer. I am referring to the Cambridge Analytica shenanigans and its disgraced CEO Alexander Nix. In true buccaneering style, Nix went where money was to be found — in politics, to create (supposedly) data-led political campaigns in places as far apart as Indonesia, the United States, the Philippines, Nigeria and Kenya, even though he “has no background in psychology, technology, marketing or politics,” according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie. It was “supposedly data-led” because Nix had no expertise on data but like many glib-talking people with posh (Eton) ways and connections he thought he could fake his way through.
You’ve noticed that I’m not making a particular big deal of Cambridge Analytica’s US operations and the Trump campaign. That’s because the basic motive of the new pirates was the same everywhere, including the USA: how to separate people from their money. In the US, it was about separating rich people from their money, pitching something they didn’t really understand but thought was extremely valuable — data (it is valuable but only if you understand it). “Cambridge Analytica’s main feat of political persuasion,” wrote Andy Kroll in Mother Jones, “was convincing a group of Republican donors, candidates, and organizations to hand over millions of dollars.” The whole scheme was never about delivering a legitimate service at all. This glib talk and swindling masquerading as superior political communication was also taken to many countries in Asia and Africa for election campaigns where not only were political elites duped but also ordinary people tricked into working for free on dubious campaigns.
As Avneesh Rai, the Indian partner of a shortlived collaboration with Alexander Nix’s Strategic Communications Limited, told journalist Sreenivasan Jain [segment in Hindi and English], Nix’s company SCL tried to double cross Indian political clients in election campaigns. Rai, who is a legit political consultant, an earnest cruncher of psychological data, was bemused by Nix’s approach. Nix came to India, told Rai he wanted to pitch a campaign to the Indian National Congress but appeared to be working actively against the party.
Several interns came down from London to the India office for short stints. It was when talking to one such visiting intern of Gujarati origin that Rai realized that Nix had already contracted with a client. It emerged that the intern was working for a client of Nix’s who wanted to defeat the Congress party while Rai and his workers were painstakingly collecting data to pitch for the Congress party account. The goal was to infiltrate and sabotage the Congress. “We are here to defeat the Congress,” Nix admitted to Rai, having already taken money from this mystery overseas client. It was not clear whether this client was aware of Nix’s tactics. Had Nix succeeded in making his pitch to the Congress party, he would have been collecting fees from both sides!
MOUs between Rai’s company and Cambridge Analytica foundered on the location of the data server. Nix wanted the data to be hosted on a United States-based server at the mystery client’s insistence. Nix and Rai had another confrontation about this. Nix retorted, “I’m here to make money.” And that in a nutshell explains this fake news and fraud politics space. Classic pirate behavior on the data high seas. Sometimes that behavior ends in death. Dan Muresan who set up Nix’s double cross game in India tried the same stunt in Kenya and may have been murdered.
Digital media is the new colonial terrain, as whistleblower Christopher Wylie stated to the British House of Commons. SCL and Cambridge Analytica represented a new kind of colonialism, a new East India Company both in social profile and in activities. It’s mining, trawling, and exploiting like an old-fashioned colonial corporation as Chris Wylie noted in disgust, getting a commodity for free (data) and selling at a huge markup. Nix was just doing what pirates have long done — plundering on one side of the ocean and selling at a markup on the other side. On land, Nix behaved like an aristocratic highwayman, gaining entree into wealthy homes and separating rich dupes from their cash. If Cambridge Analytica had not stirred up trouble in Britain and the United States with the Brexit campaign and underhanded tactics in the Trump campaign (including possible visa fraud), the chances are Nix’s shady operations would have continued under the radar much longer.
Millions of people use the Internet for all sorts of benign reasons — emailing friends and family across the world, sending out government communications, imminent weather situations (travel, safety), advertising, etc. Heck, when I created my first Twitter account back in 2009 I used it as a bookmarking tool for articles I wanted to read later. Then, along came Zotero to meet my research assistance needs, and my bookmarking activity shifted elsewhere. The Internet is overall a force for harmless fun if not active good but its very framework makes it vulnerable to criminal activity on a colonial global scale.
The title of this piece is derived from a talk I attended last week by David Ryan Polgar, tech ethicist, who suggested that a solution for today’s digital media crisis lies at least partly in “humanizing” technology for, in the end, “All Tech is Human.” We need to understand the digital space as one where multiple stakeholders operate for diverse motives. It’s time we chased out at least one of these stakeholders — the shady operators.
All tech is human. And some humans are criminals. We can argue endlessly and earnestly about moral dilemmas and ethical dilemmas, but as I said at the beginning we’ve all got it slightly wrong. Fake news isn’t about news or politics or editorial controls or ethics. It’s about crooks chasing easy money.
Decolonize social media and chase out the criminal freebooters! Combating digital pirates requires a digital coast guard and a digital navy to patrol the oceans. We need these oceans in order to lead fuller political, personal and financial lives. Let’s begin by talking about actionable, tactical law-and-order measures while the strategy unfolds.