The Scandal of Platform Capitalism
The shocking news that Facebook gave a political firm working for the 2016 Trump campaign access to the private data of 87 million of its users revealed more than the venality of a single social media giant. More broadly, the scandal underscored how the Internet, a twenty-first century commons that should by rights be the shared treasury of all, instead has been usurped as a private wealth generator by a new class of techno-billionaires. Many social critics have welcomed the explosion of social media as a wrecking ball of barriers to communication and arena for the formation of cross-border communities. Indeed, tweets, posts, and photos ricochet across the globe at speeds and scales heretofore unimaginable, but along with the great promise comes great risk. Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook data to create psychological profiles of voters to sway a US presidential election (a technique it had deployed in Africa and the Caribbean where privacy laws are weaker) is but one example. Unleashing the transformative potential of social media will require a paradigm shift in ownership if we want these platforms to serve people, not profit. Advocates of “platform cooperativism” have the right idea.