The Corporation author takes on ugly side of Facebook

February 3, 2012

Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Ruthlessly Targets Children
Joel Bakan
Random House, 2011
277 pages

Parents who read Joel Bakan's new book, Childhood Under Siege, may find themselves un-liking Facebook.

In it, the law professor ― whose previous book The Corporation was made into Canada's biggest-grossing documentary ― describes the effect of the social media giant's applications on his 13-year-old daughter.

One, named Honesty Box, lets users post anonymous comments about their friends. Those subjected to the comments, like Bakan's distraught daughter, then have to pay to find out who has made the comments.

It is just one example, says Bakan, of corporations tapping into what makes children tick.

"Parenting and teaching kids is all about aspiring to instill good values and life lessons, such as that other’s opinions of you aren’t always important," he tells Green Left Weekly.

"But it’s entirely unrealistic to believe that you just tell your kids, and a light goes off in their head ― 'Oh, yeah, dad, you’re right; I get it.' In your dreams.

"To begin with, being a teen is all about caring about what others think. As a parent you can challenge that notion, but you’re not going to make those feelings and realities go away ― especially when they are reinforced by marketing culture and then exploited by something like Honesty Box.

"Different kids navigate it all differently. As do different adults. Caring what people think is an honest and complicated emotion, especially for teens, but also for adults.

“And it is not always misplaced. You can push back on the idea, challenge it, provoke thought about it ― that’s all good. But to presume you can, or necessarily should, make it go away, that’s not realistic.

"Honesty Box is wrong because it twists and manipulates a core emotional dynamic of youth. Accepting that good parenting may involve challenging the peer obsession of youth, that does not make it right to manipulate that obsession."

Bakan likens Facebook to the Panopticon, a model prison designed by British philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. In the Panopticon ― which means "all-seeing" ― guards in observation booths in the centre of the prison could observe the prisoners around its periphery at all times, but never be seen by them.

The prisoners, said Bentham, would act as if they were being watched at all times, and behave accordingly. Just as inmates would end up policing themselves without the need for blatant surveillance, Facebook users now market to each other without the need for blatant ads, by “liking” products and sharing media.

Yet the film The Social Network portrayed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as someone who was against advertising ― in that he thought having pop-up and banner adverts all over his site would be "uncool".

Just how misleading was it?

"I don’t think it misled at all," says Bakan. "Finding ads 'uncool' is hardly a principled position. It’s a marketing posture.

"My sense from the film was that Zuckerberg understood that the most important thing was building up the cool factor, drawing people in, making Facebook an essential part of social life, and not doing anything to compromise that.

“It seems to me that is what happened. Facebook became increasingly commercial after it had already succeeded in becoming part of the social infrastructure of millions of youths ― partly because it was non-commercial and therefore cool.

"Moreover, Facebook has created and used commercial techniques that are 'cool' when compared with traditional pop-up and banner ads which, I believe, are still not a presence on Facebook.

"I’m thinking of strategies like viral marketing, friending brands, interactive and participatory marketing, and so on, which do not feel like traditional advertising."

The sophisticated manipulation of youths is rampant in technology. Bakan notes how the gaming industry plays on teenagers' desire to rebel against their parents by driving an ever-greater wedge between them.

"Tweens and teens are fascinated by violence, horror, cruelty and sex, especially when parents disapprove," he writes.

As top "kid marketer" Martin Lindstrom tells Bakan, emotions drive everything for children, "and marketers, to be successful, must engage the most fundamental emotions at the deepest levels".

The result is games such as Whack Your Soul Mate, in which users kill and defecate on their sexual partners, and Boneless Girl, in which players smash a semi-naked and unconscious woman against various objects.

The aim of the game is to get players so addicted that they keep returning to the ad-saturated gaming environment.

"Children's direct buying power, combined with their influence over parents' spending, tops $1 trillion a year," writes Bakan.

When Ronald Reagan took office, the meaning of something being "in the public interest" changed from meaning being for the public good to being whether the public would pay for it.

In the pursuit of profit, industry is now so deregulated that only 200 out of a possible 86,000 chemicals in commercial use have been tested. Growing human beings, from babies to teenagers, are particularly susceptible to such chemicals as they can play havoc with their development.

"Timing and hormones appear to be crucial elements," writes Bakan.

Toddlers are particularly susceptible, spending most of their time on the carpet, where chemical-laden dust settles.

"It is a sad and alarming truth that for each successive generation, children carry more and greater amounts of industrial chemicals in their bodies than do their parents," notes the book.

Those who should be looking out for children's health are also in thrall to corporate interests. Medical publications are now little more than PR for big pharma and children are more medicated than ever.

Bakan notes the work of child psychiatrists Robert Spitzer and Joseph Biederman as a big factor in the rise of children being diagnosed with psychiatric problems.

Yet education expert Ken Robinson recently argued that children are being misdiagnosed with ADHD because the amount of stimuli they get from media makes school classes seem boring. To what extent does Bakan think this is also a factor?

"I think it is a factor," he says. "There is a growing body of work suggestive of a link between screen-media consumption, especially at young pre-school ages, and attention span difficulties, especially once school starts."

School itself is the next target for privatisation, in the crosshairs of the likes of Rupert Murdoch. As former Yale University president Benno Schmidt Jr tells Bakan, the education industry is potentially “bigger than defence, bigger than the whole auto industry".

Bakan notes that people's defences against such privatisation may be down. A recent study showed social media dilute informed political thought, through users just skimming headlines.

Yet Bakan does see hope in social media. When I tell him how a friend recently noted the "deep irony" of young political activists using Facebook to criticise the pernicious capitalism of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, he replies: "It’s not deep irony. It’s using the tools available to communicate what you feel needs to be said.

"I made The Corporation film with the help of many corporations. My books are published by publishers owned by big corporations.

“A certain degree of complicity is the flip side of hegemony ― corporate capitalism produces everything, including the things needed to criticise it. So critics have to use the master's tools.

“I’m sure the clothes Marx wore and the paper he wrote on were manufactured by capitalist enterprises. So does it mean we should maintain our purity by not using the channels of communication available to criticise? Is the choice between 'deep irony' or being 'pure' by opting out of available communication channels?

"That is what the critics of the political activists would like ― namely to paralyse critics by saying they are morally compromised if they rely on the products of capitalism to criticise capitalism.”

But to what extent does Bakan find that political activists are unaware of Facebook's Panopticon effect?

"I am more concerned about the Panopticon effect for the average kid or teen doing the average thing on Facebook without much awareness,” he says. “That is, I think, different than those who consciously use Facebook as a tool for political organising. I try to deal with these subtleties in my concluding chapter."

In his concluding chapter, Bakan also suggests what parenthood now means.

"Being a good parent today requires more than just making good choices as a parent," he writes. "It requires as well that we work to change the conditions in which we make those choices; that we demand governments take action to protect children from harm at the hands of corporations and other economic actors.

“Being a good parent, in other words, means becoming engaged as a citizen in the collective practice of remaking society ― in that thing called democracy."

And Facebook could still play a role in that.


For those who may want to question Bakan's claims I would refer you to a much earlier study by Sue Palmer, Toxic Childhood.

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