Manufacturing Consent: How to Engineer an Education Activist

Statue of Liberty in Disgust

If social media platforms can predict your behavior, advocacy groups can buy access to it. They also have the power to manipulate your actions – and good intentions –  to serve their own agenda.

Customer tracking, discriminatory pricing (think airlines), and behavioral design are mature disciplines in retail marketing and the gambling industry.

Social media pulls all of these practices together by collecting users’ personal information, repackaging this data to appeal to marketers, and then selling access to the highest bidder.

It’s a complete loop of commercialized personalization.

In order to keep the cycle going: Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms use likes, retweets, and comments to keep their users engaged and eager to volunteer even more information. These hooks are similar to the tricks used to keep gamblers at the slots and in their seats.

Alison McDowel had this to say about adaptive learning systems:

My concern as a parent is within these adaptive learning systems, I don’t want an online system that has to learn my child to work. I don’t want a system that has to know everything my child did for the last six months, to operate properly. Because I think that becomes problematic. How do you ever have a do over? Like, is it just always building and reinforcing certain patterns of behavior and how you react…it’s, they, I think they present it as flexible and personalized, but in many ways I think it’s limiting.

What’s really different about the commercial personalization we experience on social media and the adaptive learning systems many fear are coming to public education under the guise of personalized learning?

Surveillance Capitalism and the Dawn of Nudge Activism

A popular dismissal of the encroaching surveillance state is ‘who cares if the government, commercial interests, or any other third party, has access to my personal information. I have nothing to hide.’

It’s a comforting argument, but misses the point. It’s not the data that’s the problem, but what can be done with it.

One piece of data could be harmless, but if it’s pooled with a millions of other bits and run through an algorithm, suddenly this information has the power to predicted your behavior.

If corporations can predict what you’re going to do next, they can also put a price on it, trade it, and build a whole market around it.

Von Shoshana Zuboff calls this evolution in big data mediated economics surveillance capitalism:

It’s now clear that this shift in the use of behavioral data was an historic turning point. Behavioral data that were once discarded or ignored were rediscovered as what I call behavioral surplus. Google’s dramatic success in “matching” ads to pages revealed the transformational value of this behavioral surplus as a means of generating revenue and ultimately turning investment into capital. Behavioral surplus was the game-changing zero-cost asset that could be diverted from service improvement toward a genuine market exchange. Key to this formula, however, is the fact that this new market exchange was not an exchange with users but rather with other companies who understood how to make money from bets on users’ future behavior. In this new context, users were no longer an end-in-themselves.  Instead they became a means to profits in  a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products.  Users are the source of free raw material that feeds a new kind of manufacturing process.

Government is equally excited to get in on the predictive capabilities of behavioral surplus. Pay for Success – also known as social impact bonds – is all about creating new opportunities for Wall Street to bet on future behaviors as they pertain to education, policing, incarceration, and healthcare.

Engineering an Education Activist

If social media platforms can predict your behavior, advocacy groups can buy access to it. They also have the power to manipulate your actions – and good intentions –  to serve their own agenda.

Advocacy in this context loses its traditional meaning. Instead, it becomes a data driven exercise aimed at targeting individuals sympathetic to an organization’s issue and then encouraging these targets to repeat the campaign’s message over and over again throughout their social network(s).

Independent thought is discouraged. What’s important is your willingness to repeat the designated message.

In 2014, The Excellent Schools Now coalition, funded by Stand for Children and the League of Education Voters, launched a media advocacy campaign to convince the public to support a college and career ready diploma for Washington State.  (Excellent Schools Now – Final Report)

Who Would Make a Good Education Activist?

Feedback from social media provided the Excellent Schools Now coalition with in depth knowledge of who would be the best individuals to target as education advocates.

Desirable over-arching characteristics were: engagement in traditionally lefty-leaning issues, strong personal identification with the Democratic Party, and actively engaged with the issues they care about.

At a more granular level these individuals cared about civil liberties, transportation, gender and racial equality, alternative energy, gun control and consistently vote for Democrats.

 

Top Issues

 

Political Affiliation

 

Engagement Activities

Where’s the Nudge?

All of these individuals were over indexed in actively working on issues they care about – sharing their thoughts publicly, online, and in political articles.

The nudge would come from making the Excellent Schools Now message so attractive to potential targets that they would be unable to resist sharing it. This could be done by emphasizing the message’s connection to an admired member of the Democratic Party who also happens to shares the target’s individual sense of justice or equality.

 How to Shut Down Activism if it Gets Out of Hand

What happens when activists start thinking for themselves and no longer need an advocacy group to lead the way?

Don’t worry, the public relations firm West Third Group clearly lays out the time tested plan used to keep activists in their place and repeating the right messages.

Four types of activists — radicals, opportunists, idealists and realists — define most us-vs.-them public battles. Whether the issue is political, cultural or personal, dealing with movements antagonistic to your efforts involves dividing the different types, using different tactics for each group.

  • Isolate the radicals.
  • Get the opportunists on the payroll if needed, or ignore them.
  • Cultivate/educate the idealists and convert them to realists.
  • Co-opt the realists into agreeing to industry.

 

Repeating Messages on Social Media, Is That All There Is?

Jodi Dean has an interesting take on communicative capitalism.

In the United States today, however, they don’t, or, less bluntly put, there is a significant disconnect between politics circulating as content and official politics.  Today, the circulation of content in the dense, intensive networks of global communications relieves top-level actors (corporate, institutional, and governmental) from the obligation to respond. Rather than responding to messages sent by activists and critics, they counter with their own contributions to the circulating flow of communications, hoping that sufficient volume (whether in terms of number of contributions or the spectacular nature of a contribution) will give their contributions dominance or stickiness.  Instead of engaged debates, instead of contestations employing common terms, points of reference, or demarcated frontiers, we confront a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive that it hinders the formation of strong counter-hegemonies. The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite, the post-political formation of communicative capitalism.

Maybe technology isn’t designed to save us.

While we’re burning up our time tweeting, liking, and commenting, the hard work of organizing in the real world is left for another day.

Maybe that’s whole point.

-Carolyn Leith

 

 

-Carolyn Leith

 

2 comments

  1. some of education activist are not engineered but they are born to be the activists of Education, but i believed that those who are in curiosity of academics and education management can lead the current education activism movements

  2. Social impact bonds are BONDS. This generally means that when a bond comes due (the bond is paid for by the municipality) it is most likely to be put together with all the outstanding bonds, to raise the bond debt. The alternative funding for municipalities is direct from revenue, which is more difficult to achieve in practice, especially when time is in years, not months.
    The bonus is the extra payment.
    Magic, isn’t it.

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