Social Media and the Panopticon: Part 3, ‘Big Brother’ Is Not the Government … or Is It?


The other day while driving, I missed a turn and pulled into a CVS store to turn around. The next time I looked at Facebook, I saw ads for CVS. When I looked at my Google app, I had a recommended news story about CVS. I didn’t even go into the store, yet both Facebook and Google knew I was there and targeted me as a potential customer. 

If social media is a Panopticon, as Andrew Keen asserts in his book, Digital Vertigo, then that means we are constantly visible to structures of power. But what power? And by whom? We generally think of power as the government, and when my students write about being watched on the internet, they always write about government surveillance by the NSA and other law enforcement agencies.

Keen alludes to government surveillance briefly. He quotes Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who says that Facebook has amassed “the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communication with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence” (p. 23).

But the point Keen stresses is that the biggest “inspector” is not the government but the capitalistic, consumer-based economy. Oddly, he uses none of these words. However, he zeroes in on the billions of dollars that Facebook and other social media companies are making on people’s “shared information” through targeted advertising and other marketing strategies, such as allowing third-party games, quizzes, and activities to access Facebook profiles. 

The structure of power in our lives is not the government, but the system of big retail business.

If social media comprise a Panopticon, then the power is concentrated in the hands of the consumer goods industry. These days, some may say say that is equivalent to government. Can you tell where government ends and corporations begin?

Who’s watching you, and for what purpose? And if so, what is your role in all of this? Next time, in the fourth and final part of this series, read about social media and work.

Read Part 1.  Read Part 2. 




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