Individuals nowadays are constantly in the state of being surveilled. The digital age made it easier to do so and individuals get monitored not only in the offline world but also online. Surveillance can come in different forms which can be obvious but do not always need to be, making the one being observed never sure if they are being watched at this very moment or not. The emergence of social media did not only increase surveillance conducted by institutions like the government or big organizations but also by peers. The digitalization of our world makes an individual need to be constantly aware of the fact that what they are doing could be monitored by someone and hence need to act accordingly to not cause attention.
This article will deal with peer surveillance on the internet, focusing on the social media platform Twitter, and how this surveillance converges with the offline world into an online-offline nexus event. The topic is relevant. It shows that we are being surveilled in yet another part of our lives but also how we, as individuals, have turned into those surveilling others.
The concept of surveillance
Surveillance is, according to Michel Foucault, a mode of power based on the detailed and totalized observation of behavior. It is a dominant kind of power that has been invented and used in modernity. It is based on acquiring information and primarily aims to control people rather than to repress them.
The digital age changed the way society monitors others and gets monitored itself.
Surveillance itself is not a new occurrence, and the assumption can be made that we have been observed and also observed ourselves since the beginning of humankind. Observing the behavior of others is a natural occurrence that happens daily. Observing each other does not always need to have the intention of monitoring to regulate behavior though, but can also simply be done to learn or communicate with each other. While a few decades ago this was conducted only through the sheer notion of observing what we can see at this very moment with our own eyes, the digital age changed the way society monitors others and gets monitored itself. We now have all kinds of technological innovations that can be used to monitor and surveil individuals to the point at which they often do not even know if they are being watched at this very moment or not.
The concept of the panopticon as a surveillant landscape is an important one when speaking about not only general surveillance by, for example, the government or companies and organizations but also through peers. Surveillant landscapes are "built environments that are designed to make people and their actions visible and legible" (Jones, 2017). The general idea of a panopticon was discussed by Michel Foucault in 1975 and is a model of a modern prison that is designed in a way in which a single guard can watch all prisoners (Figure 1). The prisoners on the contrary are limited in their ability to see other prisoners and the guard and hence do not know if they are watched at the very moment or not, which causes discipline power. The design of the panopticon makes the one being observed well aware of the fact that they could be monitored and visible to authorities and some other prisoners at all times, which leads to a continuous and conscious act of adjusting one’s behavior to not attract attention.
Harcourt (2015) said that the panopticon as a model is a useful one but cannot be used to explain behavioral patterns in the digital world. This is due to the fact that the panopticon in its original idea may hide important dimensions of the new digital world that have not been existent at the time it was invented.
Therefore, in order to be able to use the panopticon as a way to explain surveillance in the digital world, it would need to be optimized. In the digital world, an individual is both the guard and the prisoner at the same time, which means that there is not only one guard but multiple ones. What remains is that an individual still never knows when those guards and some other prisoners are observing them and when not. Hence, an individual in the digital world is continuously watching the behavior of others while making sure to adapt their own behavior to not cause attention. This means that the discipline power that gets created through the panoptic model remains and helps to regulate behavior in the digital world.
Surveillance in the digital world
The start of the digital age brought many changes with it which keep on developing. What would 20 years ago be seen as a huge innovation of technology, is now outdated and got developed even further. According to Taddicken (n.d.), the use of the internet has become a common practice in our everyday life, and users of it are also helping with its development from which one emergence is the social web.
"The social web – that is, web applications such as social networking sites, blogs, and wikis – offers opportunities for participation and collaboration, but requires the user’s willingness to reveal private information" (Taddicken, n.d.).
The internet developed into a surveillant landscape, in which in order to participate an individual needs to give out personal data.
Users of the internet can learn how to negotiate through the world wide web though, without giving out too much of their personally identifiable information (PII), which relates to "any information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, such as name, social security number, date and place of birth, mother’s maiden name, or biometric records" (Marwick & boyd, 2014)
What Marwick & boyd (2014) are also saying though is that methods like, for example, anonymized search logs are questionable as individuals can still be identified from datasets even if their PII has been removed.
As individuals online become more and more aware of the fact that all their data is being collected and monitored, they keep on inventing ways to avoid it in order to resist this power of surveillance. There are VPNs, tracking blockers, or different apps with different functions to prevent being surveilled. However, individuals also often give out fewer data and even false information about themselves, just to have the feeling of being less monitored (Brunton & Nissenbaum, 2013). These forms of resistance are then what make surveillant landscapes vulnerable as they live from observing people’s natural behavior. As more and more people become aware of the fact they are being surveilled, they keep on altering their shown behavior (Jones, 2017).
The way the optimized idea of the panopticon functions can be transferred to the way surveillance happens online on social media. As said, individuals are simultaneously guards and prisoners and hence act as peers who have a certain amount of disciplining power. Using the social media platform Twitter as an example, the platform works on a basis of users posting messages of 260 characters. The topic can be self-decided and there are nearly no restrictions when creating a post. Tweets sent out are visible to every other user of the website unless one makes their profile private, which then allows them to regulate who can see their sent tweet and who cannot.
In general, Twitter introduced restrictions and rules for the topics and words being tweeted out and sometimes will restrict or suspend accounts if suspicious content was found to be posted by an account. As a Twitter user myself, I do need to say that this system still needs a lot of development to work in a sufficient way in which it regulates actual suspicious behavior. Even though Twitter is working on its automatic surveillance program to filter what users are (not) allowed to say on their platform, it is still not completely developed. This shows the authoritative surveillance of the platform itself and the way it uses its power to regulate behavior on Twitter.
Because of peer surveillance happening on social media and especially on Twitter, cancel culture emerged as a form to regulate each other’s online behavior.
What is also important in the optimized online panopticon though, is peer surveillance. What can be observed on Twitter then is the emergence of a surveillant landscape that is not only shaped by authorities but also the society using it. As mentioned, peer surveillance is a very important part of our daily lives and it is not different in the online world. Norms and values exist even in the virtual space online. Knowing a user’s behavior can be seen, commented on, reported, and makes users more aware and careful of what they are posting and the words they use. Because of peer surveillance happening on social media and especially on Twitter, cancel culture emerged as a form to regulate each other’s online behavior.
Cancel culture as a form of surveillance
One way how peers keep each other aware of the fact that they could be observed by others at all times online is through the emergence of cancel culture. According to Cambridge Dictionary, cancel culture is defined as
"a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you."
This implies that there are certain norms and rules active on social media that a user needs to figure out and act according to in order to not be seen as suspicious and be canceled. In general, especially the younger generations, use cancel culture as a form of keeping track of the behavior of others. With the rise of online activism, it is used to punish those who misbehave and, for example, spread tweets that include notions of racism, sexism, or homophobia. While cancel culture is under constant criticism as the monitoring of each other and canceling users based on specific tweets is often misused to spread hate, it is indeed shown to be helpful in order to monitor norms and values in the virtual world.
An example of this, which also demonstrates the way surveillance is a converging online-offline nexus event that is heavily connected to peer surveillance, is the cancellation of German radio host Matthias Matuschik. In February 2021, during the airing of his radio show on Bayern 3, he made racist remarks toward the South Korean boyband BTS. While announcing that the next song being played on the show was Fix You by Coldplay, he commented on the recent cover BTS did of the song in a way many people saw as extremely racist. While this event could have simply passed by due to being a live-airing radio show, a Twitter user and fan of BTS happened to self-record it and was in shock by the chosen words of Matuschik. The user decided to upload it online. In the video it can be heard how the radio host compared the boyband to the coronavirus, saying their cover should be considered blasphemy and therefore, the band should have a 20-year-long vacation in North Korea. This developed into a huge cancellation act as many other users found the Tweet and shared it.
This cancellation event did not only stay within the fan community of BTS but spread to many kinds of users who conceived the words being said as a sheer act of racism and labeled it as something no one with access to a public platform should be able to say without facing consequences, as shown on Figure 2. It also swept over to media all over the globe like Billboard, BBC, and local South Korean news outlets, which shows that the peer surveillance not only stayed within individual users but also reached big companies who shared the view of the public. This form of activism was also connected to the increasing hate against Asians in connection to the Coronavirus and its spread, which was and still is a big issue in the current public sphere. An apology was given by the radio station which many did not accept as being authentic due to the choice of words used in it which referred to Matuschik’s words as an expression of opinion to which users on Twitter as a response trended ‘Racism is not an opinion' and only recently his show got canceled by authorities.
An individual needs to regulate their behavior continuously both offline and online to not attract attention and get canceled
What can be observed through this example is the spread of an act happening offline to being canceled on a global level online. It shows the way the offline world converges with the online world and how they influence each other as surveillant landscapes. The act of peer surveillance is what arose the cancel culture situation: the event happening was perceived by society as an act against their norms and values. It shows that Matuschik did not think about being surveilled at this very moment in a way that could have bigger consequences, even though a public radio show is very open to surveillance from authorities as well as peers. Matuschik showed suspicious behavior for some listeners which then got confirmed to be against the norms and values of many, which shows how surveillant landscapes are constructed and regulated by society. It shows that with the internet existing, something happening offline can easily make its way to the online world, meaning an individual needs to regulate their behavior continuously both offline and online to not attract attention and get canceled. Furthermore, it proves that individuals are indeed both, guards and prisoners, in the online world and not only one of them.
Surveillance, an online-offline nexus event
In conclusion, it can be said that surveillant landscapes became an online-offline nexus event over the past decades. An individual does not only get monitored in the offline world but also in the online one, and also acts as the one observing in return. It shows that even though humanity created a virtual extension of the world, the surveillance of not only authorities but also peers followed into it. Through continuously happening peer surveillance online, individuals are now forced to regulate their behavior in both environments in order to not draw attention to them or reveal too much information about themselves. Cancel Culture as an example shows a consequence of not following social rules and the way both worlds converge with each other, which also shows that individuals now more than ever need to keep track of their activities when being in a public space, whether it is online or offline.
Brunton, F., & Nissenbaum, H. (2013). Political and ethical perspectives on data obfuscation. Privacy, due process and the computational turn: The philosophy of law meets the philosophy of technology, 164-188.
Harcourt, B.E. (2015). Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Harvard University Press.
Jones, R. H. (2017). Surveillant landscapes. Linguistic Landscape. An International Journal, 3(2), 149-186. doi:10.1075/ll.3.2.03jon
Marwick, A.E., & boyd, D. (2014). Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media. New media & society, 16(7), 1051-1067.
Taddicken, M. (n.d.). Privacy, Surveillance, and Self-Disclosure in the Social Web. In Fuchs, C., Boersma, K., Albrechtslund, A., & Sandoval, M. (Ed.). Internet and Surveillance The Challenges of Web 2.0 and Social Media. (pp. 255-272).