Counterpublics is a project of the Persuasion Lab in response to the conditions under which advertising on social media operates: in conversation with intimate knowledge about individuals and groups, instrumentalizing the specificities of each person’s vulnerabilities.
While corporate social media is popularly understood as a public space, their hidden market function as personalised advertising infrastructures orient them far from this illusory promise of public-ness. And this bears consequences for users and non-users of social media alike.
Counterpublics is a project where we perform an action of collection and liberation of political advertising data from FACEBOOK Inc. This data, downloadable as .json files, provides information about the monetary investment in campaigns, timelines, text and visual content of ads, regional and demographic distribution of their delivery, among other parameters. The significance of these datasets is in the vantage point they create, offering an opportunity to break out of individuated realities co-created within our newsfeeds, by the targeting demands of marketeers on the one hand, and systems of circulation based on user predictability on the other hand.
Actors as diverse as local and national governments of all political persuasions, mutual aid groups, businesses, all rely, sometimes primarily, on FACEBOOK advertising products, making the company’s circulation and delivery of ads a matter of public interest. At a time when our dependence on social media is more acute than ever, our lack of agency to understand the mechanisms behind the flows of information online is also sharper. It is in response to this predicament that Counterpublics constructs alternative liminal publics through the datasets, presently about the climate crisis and COVID-19, to bring access to ads that are designed to be outside of one’s line of sight. The infrastructure of collection will be hosted on the servers of network culture initiative mur.at, and the data accessible at https://counterpublics.mur.at
Our choices in data collection have been guided by different factors: the choice of the COVID dataset is to reveal the landscape of ads when set against the backdrop of the exaggerated importance that social media platforms have come to assume during the pandemic. The choice of the climate dataset is driven by the momentum of conversations about the climate crisis, but is also strategic, as it remains one of the rare instances where platforms have been pushed to tag the ads of some big businesses also as “political”, helping reveal the bizarre binaries of political/apolitical.
Aside from maintaining this infrastructure, Counterpublics also hopes to pry open the fundamentals of the terms of debate around advertising: is an ad its visual content? Or is an ad its circulation specs? If a particular ad’s visual content is delivered to ten screens at different times, optimised for different devices and viewers’ preferences for time and place of encounter, is that still a single ad, or are these ultimately multiple ads? Who does it serve to uphold the dubious distinction between ads that are political and ads that are not? These questions point to a need to critically consider the suitability of adoption of marketing language and logics to understand information flows that shape social relations and political processes.
Indeed, social relations and political processes are mutually constitutive. Haraway speaks of social relations as 'the most important political construction' and a 'world-changing fiction'. What the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of advertising tells us is that this most important political construction is material to rationalise and monetise for platforms, ultimately also reshaping the very social relations. The power we have devolved under capitalism to social media platforms creates out of us cyborgs with little agency -- in user profiles created about us through our use of social media, we are unintentionally and without our conscious participation, unwitting cyborgs, part reality and part fiction, and for sale.