by Ryan McMaken
The Creepy Line, a new documentary by director M.A. Taylor, is now streaming at Amazon Prime. It provides an interesting and revealing look at how Google and Facebook influence their users’ view of the world, and how the users we often presume to be the customers of these companies aren’t really the customers. The users are, in fact, the product being sold to third parties.
The Creepy Line takes its title from a description of Google once uttered by Google executive Eric Schmidt who said Google’s mission was to “get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”
In truth, though, by pioneering the “surveillance business model,” Google has arguably been stepping over “the creepy line” for years. Not that this has been much of a problem for the company. Few users seem motivated to stop using Google products.
It is perhaps in its basic explanations of how this surveillance model works that The Creepy Line is most interesting: the filmmakers explain in simple terms how a small number of companies have come to compile extensive data profiles of many hundreds of millions of human beings, and how that user data is the real product being sold by the companies that compile it.
The Surveillance Model
There’s a lot of money to be made by helping advertisers target specific potential customers. This can be done if a company can find cheap and easy ways to collect information on the consumers advertisers wish to target. Successful tech giants can offer this data — and huge amounts of it.
In order to offer advertisers data on potential customers, though, a company first has to collect it. And in order to collect it, the company must offer some sort of bait for the users to seize upon, thus leaving behind their personal data. Over the past 20 years, Google and Facebook have perfected the art of convincing users to trade online services for their personal data. And the companies’ capabilities have expanded with time.
For example, in the early days, if internet users didn’t use the Google search engine to access a website, Google didn’t know about it. Users had to use Google’s site in order to be tracked. This limited the information Google could collect. Eventually, though, Google — inspired in part by Apple — figured out it could track its users more fully by developing its own internet browser, and then developing its own computing devices.
So, while one could, once upon a time, avoid Google surveillance by going directly to a website, data on everything you do on your Android phone or Chromebook is harvested, analyzed, and processed by Google.
Facebook, of course, has attempted similar levels of surveillance by using Facebook apps on smartphones to monitor most of what its users do with their phones. But whether or not one uses Facebook on a smart phone, the company collects data on every user’s friends, his posts, his comments, and his instant messages.
This information is then used to sell highly specific targeted ads to advertisers.
You Are Not the Customer
The Creepy Line thus helps to explain one of the most important and economically significant aspects of the surveillance model in business: Google and Facebook users are not the customers. The real customers are the advertisers who use Facebook and Google for targeted advertising. The users are just the ones who give Google and Facebook something to sell.
Certainly, the users are an essential part of the equation, just as they are essential to other forms of media, such as broadcast television and radio. In all of these cases, though, the viewers/users are part of the process that produces the final product. They don’t consume the final product. In broadcast television and radio, for example, the television shows and radio broadcasts are only there to keep the viewer around long enough to see the commercials. If the programming is successful, then the “ratings” are high and the content providers can charge more for advertising. In other words, NBC does not exist to create television programming. It exists to make money through ad sales. The TV shows themselves are only something NBC uses to increase ad sales. TV networks would run a blank screen for 22 minutes every half hour if they thought it would bring in more viewers for advertisements.
Similarly, with social media and search engines, the search results and news feeds are there to make users available to advertisers. From the point of view of the companies, the users aren’t consuming the product. The users are helping create the product.
It’s true that users get something in return for their personal data. They receive the benefits (in terms of convenience) of using Google and Facebook services. But this doesn’t make the user a customer. It makes the user a supplier, just as a lumber yard is a supplier that makes it possible for a carpenter to sell this wares.
The film illustrates how, when it comes to companies that run on the surveillance model, our old notions of consumer sovereignty, producer sovereignty, and entrepreneur-client relationships don’t apply the way we think they do. The users aren’t the customers, and the profitability of Google and Facebook doesn’t fundamentally rest on what the users do. What really matters is that Google and Facebook can continue to extract data from enough people so as to sell a product to advertisers. Surely, this will require Facebook and Google to keep up the appearance of wishing to “serve” the people who hand over their personal data. But in a world of such immense amounts of data, many users are expendable. And this is why companies like Google and Facebook have few scruples about banishing even popular users like Alex Jones or other controversial pundits and content creators. Those people aren’t the customers. What really matters is the ad revenue
Controlling How We View the World
In order to keep users coming back to Facebook and Google, of course, these companies have to offer users something. In many cases, the services traded for personal data take the form of search results and the news feeds that many users have come to rely on.
This then brings us to another way Google and Facebook insinuate their company policies and views into our daily lives. By creating the software behind search results and news feeds, the owners and employees of these companies decide what information users consume.
This in itself is not especially surprising. After all, publishers throughout history have controlled what information is presented. Book authors, newspaper editors, and television producers control what information the viewers and readers are allowed to see.
There’s nothing fundamentally different here, except perhaps in the fact that users of Google and Facebook have been especially naïve about the degree of power these tech giants have over the flow of information through their platforms.
After all, have not newspapers always cherry-picked what articles they run? Not even the “letters to the editor” feature have ever been an open forum. The editors choose which letters the readers see.
What The Creepy Line does, though, is remind us of how truly easy it is to manipulate users by framing and selecting the information they see.
As the film notes — and as most marketing consultants will tell you — fewer than 10 percent of search engine users will ever get beyond the first page of search results. This means that Google has tremendous power in deciding what information is seen by the overwhelming majority of people performing web searches.
Certainly, there are those hardy souls who do real research by really digging into the information. They refine their searches, look deeply into the search results, and attempt to confirm the data they do find.
But this is only a tiny percentage of the population.
Moreover, surveys show that a majority of US adults use social media sites (predominantly Facebook) as a source of news. Many use Facebook as their primary source for news.
How many of these users cross-reference other sources of news? If the past is any indicator: very few.
After all, historically, most people have been content to consume whatever the newspapers tell them is the news. They consume whatever is on the evening news — whatever’s convenient. They believe whatever Walter Cronkite tells them.
But this has always been an unfortunate reality of the media landscape — even before social media or Google. Most people will believe the news that can be consumed with the least effort. The novelty of Google and Facebook is that they have taken convenience to a whole new level.
Manipulating Ideology, Rigging Elections?
This power to control information, of course, could potentially extend to rigging elections by controlling what voters see about candidates.
Given that they theoretically have to power to do it, do Facebook and Google do this on purpose?
That has yet to be proven, although The Creepy Line presents this as more or less established fact.
And that’s where most criticisms of the documentary come in. The fact that the director, M.A. Taylor, also made the anti-Clinton documentary Clinton Cash suggests to some reviewers that the documentary primarily exists to push a narrative in which tech giants are manipulating the public to support Democratic candidates.
This aspect of the documentary, however, dominates only the last third of the film — and I would suggest this is the weakest part of the film. It’s likely that the filmmakers felt the film needed to make a very explicit and forceful political point to be seen as relevant or compelling. In some ways, though, this last section of the film gives the appearance that the filmmakers were trying too hard to “bring it home.”
Besides, even if Google and Facebook do manipulate their news feeds and search results on purpose, this doesn’t make them fundamentally different from the people who control what we see on CNN or Fox News.
Far more dangerous is the fact that the consumers of news haven’t learned anything from decades of witnessing obvious bias in the legacy news media. In spite of the fact that the World Wide Web offers an immense variety of sources of news, research, and opinion, most users of media are content to let others be the last word in selecting the news they consume.
Although The Creepy Line has attempted to portray Google and Facebook as achieving a new level of nefariousness in this regard, the critical ingredient in the manipulation of voters remains the voters. It appears the voters are content to let themselves be manipulated. They could seek out news sources other than CNN or Google News or their Facebook news feed. Many simply choose not to.
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Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.