Written for UNC-Media Hub.
All graphics by Meredith Wilson.
A few years ago, a woman in Shanghai was on her way to work. She made it to the high-speed train in time, but her husband was running late, so she made the train wait for 15 minutes so that he could board.
Angry passengers reported the delay, and the couple was punished by being unable to buy train tickets in China for a year.
Welcome to China’s Social Credit System in which each citizen, by 2020, will earn a single number based on undisclosed algorithms that will tell everyone what kind of person they are. The numbers are then ranked against the rest of the population. For the Chinese government, this is an effort to control its 1.4 billion people and create a system of trustworthiness.
In the case of the unlucky couple on the train, their social credit scores dropped.
That happened to a friend of McCaig Dove’s coworker. Dove, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate, is a U.S. citizen working in China.
“In one sense, I really do understand the government needing to have some sort of control over the people, but I think to the extent of controlling their behaviors and social lives it’s really scary—it has been getting out of control,” Dove said.
What many might consider a Big Brother dystopia is in the early stages of a trial-run in China. If you’re a Chinese citizen, all of your online and public interactions, shopping patterns at favorite stores, Google searches, even how often you play video games are factored in. The numbers crunched out of all your daily habits will eventually tell you where you can work, the type of transportation you can take, whether you can buy a house and determine what schools your children can attend.
What seems like a scene from Netflix’s “Black Mirror” might actually be nearer to America than people realize.
Gary Kayye, assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said that Big Data and media giants like Facebook, Google and YouTube are creating a social credit system much like the one in China—people just aren’t seeing it that way.
Kayye said that Snapchat is an example as to how people are scored without realizing it. Nearly 78 percent of those aged 18 to 24 use the platform, and just below the ghost on the app’s home screen, each user finds a score. The higher your score is, the more likely you are to receive benefits from using Snapchat.
Kayye said right now, these numbers we find on or lurking within the back ends of our online social interactions are just for fun. Brand influencers on social media—usually bearing greater numbers and digital footprints than others–will get a human on the line when they need help, whereas the average user will get an automated voice message.
“If someone’s having a problem on Instagram that’s an influencer,” Kayye said, “they’re going to get more help from Facebook and Instagram than you are, so that’s how they benefit from the ranking.”
All social media platforms rate their users and manipulate content to a certain extent, and they don’t have to fully disclose how or why they do it. Facebook’s long-standing veil of secrecy and history of privacy violations are prime examples. Without knowledge or consent, more than 87 million Facebook users’ information had been shared with the British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, since 2014. Years of sharing information with third parties under scant privacy policies are finally coming to light, but it’s taken Congress almost 15 years to question Facebook’s impact on the public.
Numbers that are just for fun now might turn into tools that quantify social worth. Kayye said it would be easy for media giants like Facebook and Google to hand over user information to other third parties like employers to streamline evaluation processes—much like a credit score does when you’re trying to buy a car.
“Now, let’s fast-forward five years from now and they give that information to credit bureaus or to banks or to hospitals or colleges,” Kayye said. “Colleges are already using social profiles to look at their applicants—what better service for Facebook to provide than to accelerate the evaluation process of someone on social media for a big company that’s paying for the service or for a university that’s paying for the service?”
But will a streamlined evaluation process cost us a fair shot at certain opportunities?
Alice Marwick, assistant professor in the department of communications at UNC-CH, has conducted social research in Silicon Valley and found that although tech giants like to claim everyone has a fair chance at being seen on the internet, this isn’t the case. She said there’s a classist system at work within these media platforms that further increases the gap between the rich and poor.
For Marwick, social media already plays a role in your societal standing: “I think that will, and, in fact, does, have a great impact on a variety of opportunities that are presented to or denied to people based on their social status.”
Marwick said police often use social media data to profile, and that there’s evidence this information is racially biased. This doesn’t stop at the individual—such assessments are made based on the people with whom you connect. In the admissions process for colleges, Marwick said students who connect with those who don’t go to college might be seen as unfit by recruiters—the disadvantaged are even further disadvantaged by social media.
Employers can’t ask you if you’re pregnant, but they can look at your Instagram. Marwick said this is just another example of the strategic concealment of the ways in which social media are used.
“Congress has proven fairly incompetent at acting on technologically emergent situations,” Marwick said. “So, because a lot of this data discrimination is going on under the radar, it makes it very difficult to legislate against.”
Michael Rappa, founding director for the Institute for Advanced Analytics and faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University, said a world dominated by a hyper-connected social reality is only a few decades away.
“Like credit scores, social scores are going to come into greater focus as people realize their value and implications, both positive and negative,” Rappa said. “We need to muster the efforts of educators, watchdog groups and policymakers to ensure people aren’t unfairly harmed by the callous use of social scores.”
Dove said her American and Chinese coworkers react differently to the social credit system. Chinese citizens speak highly of how it rewards good behavior—the Chinese government never expresses qualms with it, either.
“I think it’s marketed by the government as a positive thing, but I see more negatives than positives,” Dove said.