In today’s transparent society, which is motivated by the growth of social media, one can often see the adverse effects of social surveillance. These are mostly seen in acts of public shaming, especially in social media. But, does social surveillance always have a negative effect, or can it be used for good as well?
Social Surveillance on Social Media
Alice Marwick, a post-doctoral researcher in social media at Microsoft, calls the intense type of public monitoring, leading to malign effects such as public shaming, as social surveillance. She has documented how it has behavioral-modification effects on teens who have profiles on social networks.
Because of the observer effect—the idea that human behavior changes when they realize they are being observed—these teens consciously shape their external image and modify their online behavior mostly to satisfy the social pressure of other teens.
Many users of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat, Foursquare, and other Web 2.0 sites are constantly monitoring what their social circle is up to. Some conformity is the inevitable result. One also sees more unauthorized social surveillance—best exemplified by the self-explanatory phrase “Facebook stalking”.
Marwick reports one instance of a young woman looking at the page of the girl that her ex-boyfriend was dating after they had broken up. The young woman is quoted as saying, “It makes me feel good because I don’t think she’s very pretty. That’s why I look at her pictures, and I’m like, ‘That’s okay.'”
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People’s Instinct to Observe and Judge Others
People have the instinct to always observe and judge others, which is a darker side of the observer effect, no matter who wields the watcher’s spectacles. British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, includes some aberrant instances of public shaming.
In a review of his book, journalist Christine Rosen wrote, “That the stories it tells reveal just how swift, permanent, and often deeply unfair our judgments of one another can be.” This public shaming, distributed via social media, are commentaries that people hope never to read about themselves.
This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.
Positive Effects of Social Surveillance
Social Surveillance, however, does have some positive effects. One of the notable places where these positive effects can be witnessed is the actions of corporations subject to public scrutiny under the law. The right-to-know laws often mandate that companies disclose sensitive details about their operations—how much of a pollutant, for example, they discharge into a local river.
These laws have had the salutary effect of driving pollution-reduction without legal mandates. One instructive example is found in New Jersey. There, the Community Right-to-Know Law combined with the 1991 Pollution Prevention Program did not mandate toxic air emission reductions. Instead, the laws required only public disclosure. Each company had to publicly report how much it polluted, and whether or not it was making progress in reducing pollution.
The results were striking. Between 1987 and 1994—a span that began before the law was adopted and continues three years after its enactment—New Jersey companies subject to the law reduced their production-related wastes by 50%. And then between 1994 and 2001, there was an additional 26% reduction of waste products. This demonstrates that public observation can have a positive effect on socially undesirable behavior.
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Government’s Surveillance of Its Citizens
One of the positive effects of social surveillance can be found in the government’s surveillance of its citizens. It goes beyond the obvious cases where the government keeps tabs on criminals. It is crucial to acknowledge that sometimes governments can produce social benefits with surveillance and data collection.
One of the best examples can be in the healthcare and disaster-recovery fields. In 2014, Ebola raged in western Africa. More than 4,000 people died during the early stages of the outbreak. Doctors fought to stem the flood aided by big data. Doctors fighting Ebola used mobile phones that were equipped with geolocation capabilities to combat the illness.
According to a report by BBC, Orange Telecom in Senegal handed over anonymized voice and text data from 150,000 mobile phones to a Swedish non-profit organization known as Flowminder that was able to “draw up detailed maps of population movements in the regions”. Using this data, the authorities figured out the best places to set up treatment centers. They also identified which areas to quarantine. It also meant healthcare officials could predict which areas of the country were at increased risk of new cholera outbreaks allowing them to get ahead of the curve.
Common Questions about Social Surveillance
According to Alice Marwick, a post-doctoral researcher in social media at Microsoft, teenagers consciously shape their external image and modify their online behavior to satisfy the social pressure of other teens, which is a result of the observer effect.
One of the notable places where the positive effects of social surveillance can be witnessed is the actions of corporations subject to public scrutiny under the law.
Doctors fighting Ebola used mobile phones that were equipped with geolocation capabilities to figure out the best places to set up treatment centers and identify the areas that had to be quarantined.