Over 50 people were killed by the police during demonstrations in Peru. Brazil is reeling from a coup attempt in its capital city. The residents of Culiacán, a city in northern Mexico, still cower in their houses after the army swooped in to arrest a cartel kingpin. Countries across Latin America have kicked off the year with turmoil.
It is almost a truism to say that the common factor in these events has been the role of social media. Far-right radicals in Brazil were seen to be openly organizing and spreading fake news about electoral fraud on Twitter. Peruvians used TikTok to bear witness to police brutality, preserving it for posterity.
Dealing with the aftermath of the crises, in Culiacán, Sinaloans shared crucial info as to where roadblocks continued to burn, and warned about shootouts in certain neighborhoods. Brazilians opened up Instagram and other social channels to compile photos and other evidence that might help the police bring the Brasília rioters to justice.
These events could be said to have happened online as much as they did offline, yet we know next to nothing about the inner workings of the platforms they occurred on.
People covering these platforms face a common refrain: After reaching out for basic social media data, they will often get a reply saying, “Unfortunately we do not have the information you need at this time.” (This particular quote came from Alberto de Golin, a PR agency representative for TikTok Mexico).
But TikTok is not alone; this is a refrain common to many platforms, no matter where they are from. What they share, as core components of “surveillance capitalism” — through which users’ data is gathered, processed, and sold to third parties as crucial sales intel — is that their main product is the data they so jealously cling to.
Platforms’ business models require a degree of confidentiality to protect their trade secrets from the competition. The result has been that each social media company has become a black box, through which our social, cultural, and political realities are filtered without much understanding or consent on our part.
To not understand what is going on inside these companies is to not understand how much Brazilian extremist organizations were helped by the platforms’ algorithms this month as they launched their coup attempt via Telegram, Kwai, and Facebook. It stops us from finding out about human rights abuses in Peru because moderators take down some images of violence for being too unseemly, while leaving up pro-Sinaloa Cartel posts.
As the U.S. blunders into considering a ban on TikTok, perhaps it’s time to start thinking more globally and more sophisticatedly about how to extricate some of the crucial intel that social media companies keep only to themselves.