I'm an ex-smoker. In a moment of weakness, I recently bought a pack of cigarettes from the corner store. I paid by credit card. A short time later, I began to see ads in my Facebook news feed for Chantix. After that, Spotify ads told me that Dale Earnhardt Jr used to be a smoker, but he kicked the habit with the help of Nicorette.
Coincidence? Certainly not.
We live in the age of surveillance capitalism, a term coined by author and scholar Shoshana Zuboff. Her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power offers a chilling analysis of the rise of this kind of mass data collection and mining by Google, Facebook and others that is then sold to advertisers to influence behavior. Zuboff's book is a must-read.
My cigarette purchase was sucked into what Zuboff calls "Big Other." From there, the behavioral futures markets sprung to action, serving me ads to purchase smoking cessation products in an attempt to influence my behavior.
On a larger scale, we have seen political campaigns use the behavioral futures markets, as Zuboff labels it, to influence election outcomes.
I know, I know. It sounds like 1984. But this is our now.
For communication directors working in the nonprofit sector, Zuboff's insightful analysis challenges widely-accepted social media practices. An official social media presence affords an effective communication channel with stakeholder groups and is nearly ubiquitous among nonprofit organizations. However, Zuboff's exposé of the dark side of the data collection and behavior prediction regime calls into question whether nonprofits with an interest in the common good ought to be using social media platforms like Facebook and advertising platforms like Google as a means to solicit support for their missions.
For faith-based nonprofits, these questions are particularly pointed. Facebook and Google's ability to influence behavior, both individually and at scale, can have a deleterious effect on people and democratic societies. The incredible concentration of power that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon wield presents a threat to individual free will and the future of open, democratic societies.
What to do? With a lack of substitutes for a platform like Facebook, nonprofits face a Faustian bargain: Collaborate with Facebook et. al., or walk away and risk losing connection and relevance with important stakeholder groups. With few viable substitutes, the cost of breaking free of Facebook and Google can be very high, diminishing mission awareness and ability to fundraise.
There are no easy answers.
Surveillance capitalism is our now. Will our future be different?