Originally published in Our Times Fall 2018 – Illustration by Pui Yan Fong


Can “union intelligence” wake us from digital sleepwalking?


“Flying through cyberspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.”

Or so Han Solo might have said to Luke Skywalker, if they were trying to evade any online “Imperial entanglements”.

Over the years I’ve often turned to Han for inspiration. When I think of corporate social media platforms like Facebook, I think of the scene in the 1977 movie where the Millennium Falcon gets captured: “We’re caught in a tractor beam and it’s pulling us in.” Han says. “But they’re not going to get me without a fight.”

While Facebook isn’t the only Death Star in a galaxy of corporate web and social media systems, we are well and truly caught in its tractor beam – and we won’t escape its grip without a fight.

So here is my fight: If unions and non-profits cultivate better digital options, we can decrease our dependence on platforms that:

  • Aren’t controlled by us
  • Are based on business models most of us actively dislike, and
  • Weaken our ability to think and connect outside their box.

That’s the general idea behind this two-part article. In Part One, I talk about some of the problems with surveillance capitalism which Facebook represents. In Part Two, I get into the good stuff of what those “better digital options” can look like and how organizations can cultivate them.

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, writing in the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine, calls surveillance capitalism “a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior.” Activist and scholar Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas, remarks that “surveillance is baked into everything we’re doing.” In a 2017 speech, grimly titled “Sleepwalking into Surveillant Capitalism, sliding into Authoritarianism,” Tufekci observed that we live, increasingly, inside “surveillant persuasion architectures” that today try to get us to click on an ad, but increasingly will be “persuading us to support something, to think of something, to imagine something.”

Imagine, then, that what we (as individuals – and as organizations) think about platforms like Facebook is what we think about the de facto surveillance capitalist superstructure of our lives today. And just like every tool shapes the task, so does capitalist digital carry its own bias of full spectrum data accumulation, tracking, segmentation and fierce competition for people’s attention. Do we internalize that bias? My fear is that the more we adopt this kind of capitalist logic in our digital efforts, the more we turn away from what we could call “union intelligence.”

Can we completely free ourselves from capitalist logic when we use digital tools? I don’t know. But I do know that organizations concerned with worker rights, justice and solidarity need to figure out how to base our digital strategies in logics of mutual aid – not in the values and spreadsheets of digital marketing metrics.

In this digital re-think, we might continue to boost posts and run ads on Facebook, but mostly in order to promote union digital spaces where we can go beyond buying our own members’ attention, where we can provide them with something they can use – and be proud of. Sure, carving out non-commodified digital strategies is a tall order, but if we’re not rebels against the Empire, or at least against surveillance nightmare machines like Facebook, then who are we and what are we doing?

The problem with Facebook is Facebook

Despite the odd profit drop and regular bouts of bad press, Facebook remains the dominant social media platform, according to 2018 annual report from Ryerson University’s Social Media Lab.

Eighty-four per cent of all online Canadian adults (18+) have an account and 80 per cent use it at least once a month, the highest level of “monthly active users” of all platforms. There is a perception that Facebook skews older (“Nobody is on Facebook anymore,” one younger colleague tells me), but the report found that a full 95 per cent of people between 18 and 24 have an account.

We use the platform for everything. All the time. To vent, to feel connected, to be validated.  (By “we” I mean the royal we. Younger people are drawn to other platforms; many see Facebook as a place for older people – and their union, which we’ll explore a bit later.)

We know we’re being tracked and sold inside a massive marketing apparatus, one based entirely on surveillance, but we stay locked into the tractor beam. Is it really a free choice?

“Does it seem reasonable to conclude consumers chose ubiquitous surveillance?” asks Brett Frischmann in the July 2018 Scientific American online article Algorithm and Blues: The Tyranny of the Coming Smart-Tech Utopia:

No, not really. That’s an argument that only makes sense when made in hindsight with blinders on to ignore inconvenient facts about political economy, techno-social engineering and human psychology.

Frischmann goes on to trace the more nuanced reality of what actually happened:

Did people take supposedly free stuff they were given, gradually develop expectations, preferences and habits via experiences in a highly engineered digital networked environment, and become dependent on surveillance capitalism? Yes, that seems a more reasonable description of the past two decades.

Facebook is easy to use, and everyone is there. People come for the connection and community, and stay for the notifications. These unrelenting psycho-behavioural mechanisms, scientifically designed, affirm our popularity, sense of belonging and even self-esteem in a world where our economy and institutions are failing most people.

For organizations that use the platform, more than self-esteem is at stake. As union educators, organizers and communicators, our dependence on Facebook is digital sketchiness of the highest order: We build Mark Zuckerberg’s digital business rather than take care of our own.

Dependence raises questions.

  • Are we putting enough, if any, effort into building our capacity to generate digital relevance with our members on platforms we own and control?
  • Are we creating digital content and experiences that people want and find useful?
  • Is the “perpetual now” of social media weakening our ability to come together and discuss strategy?
  • What principles are we organizing around?

I’m a total nerd for this stuff, but happily I’m not the only one. I talked to my pal Laurie Antonin, a political action digital campaigns staffer at the Canadian Labour Congress, about how unions can “do digital” better. I love talking to Laurie. We don’t always agree on everything (that’s a good thing), but over the past few years we have had many conversations about the challenges facing organizations as they adapt to digital technological change.

Laurie says that if organizations aren’t having internal discussions about the different ways to speak to our members, or to the public, then that connection isn’t going to happen over the long-term.

“Organizations are realizing that they need to become more digitally savvy, that their survival depends on being able to speak to people on these platforms,” Antonin tells me. “Telling your brand story is incredibly important. It won’t happen if the culture of your organization isn’t behind it.”

I agree with her, even if she uses the term “brand story” unironically.

It ends poorly for the Death Star and it might for Facebook, too. (People tend to point to MySpace to support that argument.) In the meantime, it’s long past time to open a wider and deeper conversation about digital in our organizations. We can start with understanding what Facebook is (a marketing and surveillance platform) and what it isn’t (all about building community) (though clearly people do connect on it, and communities do get built).

It’s tempting to “delete Facebook,” but it’s more vital to go “beyond Facebook” and put our attention on developing digital strategies grounded in solidarity, creating content our members want or need, and offering relevant learning opportunities. And it’s especially important that we build the capacity to do all of that in-house.

Does connection = surveillance?

Breaking up with Facebook is hard to do. I’ve tried. And I’ve taken those “breaks” a lot of us take. I generally feel better about myself and the world the longer I’m away.

The Cambridge Analytica “breach” (more like standard operating procedure, many critics observe) was one “scandal” too many for me, however. J’accuse, Facebook! I downloaded my “data” (nowhere near all of it, by the way, judging from the thin file in my downloads folder). Then I wrote (and rewrote) my farewell post.

And then I let it all sit. I stopped worrying about it. I read books, websites, magazines. I reached out to people, tried to be more social, went to work and generally tried “to human,” as my step-daughter would say.

My reflections led me to write this article; they also led me back to the platform. I was a little shocked that everybody was still there. I’m like, Hey, didn’t you all hear about the U.S. election mayhem? About the deliberately crafted emotional manipulation? Aren’t you sick of Zuckerberg’s apologies?

And then it dawned on me: This is what domination looks like.

Cue Luke Skywalker: “Why are we still moving towards it?” he whines, as the Millenium Falcon gets dragged towards the Death Star. I know how he feels.

Domination. There just doesn’t seem to be another word for it. We, individually, feel that opting out of Facebook isn’t an option; we take those little “breaks” instead. Sure, we can check out any time we like, but we can never leave: Facebook follows us around the web and compiles the “data” to sell regardless, whether we’re logged in or not.

In fact, Facebook follows us around the web whether we have an account or not, writes University of Virginia media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.

“Facebook can’t stop abusing our trust,” he tells NBC News. “It will always watch everything we do. It will always target ads very precisely in ways that manipulate us. It will always amplify the worst things about us because that’s the nature of Facebook. Facebook cannot work if it doesn’t do those basic things.”

Vaidhyanathan talks about Facebook’s three major forms of surveillance:

  • Commercial: connecting potential customers (prospects) to marketers to make sales (conversions)
  • State: connecting detailed records of our relationships, activities and sentiments to state agencies
  • Inter-personal: yes, connecting us to each other and sharing our thoughts, desires, cute photos and strong opinions — and also watching what each one of us says and does.

In all those senses, Facebook truly is about “connection.”

Says one colleague: “The things I love about Facebook as a marketer are the same things I hate about it as a user. It just sees and knows everything.”

That’s because digital tools are optimized for surveillance capitalism, observes Jonathon Hodge, Digital Privacy Project Lead at the Toronto Public Library and a member of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union (Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 4948).

“These tools are not optimized for us,” he tells me. “Their lack of neutrality is on display. They can reach people very efficiently, but efficiency is not the aim of the social group. Efficiency is the aim of the capitalist enterprise.”

We need to promote a public debate on the use of digital tools so individuals can make more informed decisions about them, Hodge says.

Nasma Ahmed, director of the Digital Justice Lab, agrees that people need to make informed decisions and understand potential risks. The Toronto-based Lab engages with diverse communities, technologists, community activists and policymakers to build what it calls “alternative digital futures.”

Ahmed points to concerns about police surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists on Facebook (and elsewhere).

“If we’re going to use the platform we have to understand the risks — if you don’t have to say it on Facebook, then don’t,” she advises. “The most important thing is making those assessments.”

For Ahmed, the ability of workers, Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour to build power is central to building an alternate digital future where everyone has equitable and safe access to the Internet. It’s a thrilling vision, and unions can play a part in it.

“Digital technologies can play a major role in shifting power dynamics,” she says. “Our future is quite liberatory and I think the only way we can get there is in our practices today.”

In the meantime, though, the tractor beam has us caught. One colleague tells me she “feels terrible about it, but that’s where everybody is.”

I feel my colleague’s queasiness as she “renders unto Facebook.” But that gnawing feeling is there for a reason. It’s saying that it’s time for organizations to get serious about digital publishing — beyond posting and advertising on Facebook.

Derek Blackadder puts it bluntly.

“We don’t control it. We don’t own it. There are good reasons to use Facebook, but not having a Plan B is irresponsible — likely crazy,” he tells me.

Blackadder is a former CUPE staff rep as well as a labour and technology activist. He’s also a writer familiar to Our Times readers as its Webwork columnist.

Over the years, his list of reasons why over-reliance on Facebook is bad has only grown. He has firsthand knowledge of organizing campaigns that Facebook killed due to companies threatening legal action. “I’ve heard of four,” he says. “There may be dozens.”

Blackadder has also seen, as he mentioned in a recent column, a disturbing hollowing-out of union web content. He’s noticed union websites that prominently display their social media posts, but whose “News” sections haven’t been updated in years.

“We’re losing track of a principle of union communications that everything a union does should be looked at through an organizing lens,” he says. “The key principle: whatever you do for this campaign you are trying to build capacity for the next one. Win or lose, how do we increase chances of success for next time?”

Dependence on Facebook also makes unions vulnerable to the shifting rates of platform adoption across age groups. What happens once your union finally gets comfortable on Facebook, only to discover that the younger workers you want to reach are on Snapchat? What unions have a Snapchat strategy?

After the top three platforms (Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn), Snapchat and Instagram (the latter owned by Facebook) are the next most popular platforms in Canada, according to the Social Media Lab.

About 66 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 use Snapchat and Instagram regularly, but only 17 per cent of people aged 55 and over use Instagram; for Snapchat, usage for folks 55+ drops to a mere five per cent.

So when my colleague says no-one’s on Facebook anymore, she’s onto something: younger adults may have an account, but that’s not necessarily their prime place of connection. This digital-platform gap reminds us that the labour movement’s persistent inter-generational gap has a massive digital component, too. It’s vital we pay attention to digital divides as we plan for union succession — and success.

“Success” can be achieved through some good old analogue strategies, by the way. In his own organizing work at Toronto libraries, Hodge describes how co-workers, even years afterwards, have told him how important a single conversation was to them in the development of their understanding of workplace issues. Digital tools are a mechanism for conversation, he says, but not a replacement for it.

“We have to do the ground work,” Hodge says. “There is no replacement for those person-to-person conversations. We used to call this organizing.”

Nobody, he notes wryly, has told him how much a Facebook meme has meant to them.

Digital is super-speedy. It’s like flying through hyperspace on the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. (Yes, I’m talking about the Millennium Falcon.) But speed isn’t known for helping us think more clearly. Can we take the time in our organizations to slow down and ask broad questions?

What values inform our digital strategies? The answers are close at hand. Our organizations simply need to open the conversation.

Union intelligence, don’t fail us now

In her book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson talks about the “grounded normativity” of Nishnaabeg intelligence. This concept is one of the most vital lessons in this brilliant and visionary book.

A normativity relates to standards or norms of behaviour. It’s the idea that we are what we do; we are how we do it. For Simpson, grounded normativity is Nishnaabewin, the communal intelligence that fortifies her people’s vitality and strengthens their ability to resist colonial erasure. It’s the “practices and ethical processes that make us Nishnaabeg – including story or theory, language learning, ceremony, hunting, fishing, ricing, sugar making, medicine making, politics, and governance.”

In other words, it’s what we do – and how we do it. “[C]entering ourselves in this Nishnaabeg process of living,” Simpson writes, “is both the instrument and the song.”

What song are we singing when we rely on corporate social media platforms?

And what would we consider to be grounded normativity for unions? Similarly, we would find it in our practices and ethical processes. We demonstrate “union intelligence” when we support each other in solidarity, seek respect for workers, build more inclusive workplaces and communities; we demonstrate it in collective bargaining, coalition and movement building and defending gains made through struggle – and real, long-term social relationships based on trust and mutual empowerment.

Digital campaigning is fast, ultra-short-term, inflexible. It does not build the spaces we need to pause, confer and deliberate. It generates the impression of incredible – and exciting – engagement, but we know that much of it is shallow and fleeting. Digital campaigning and “conversations” are brittle and transient, when what the world needs — and what our organizations and movements need — are places where we can have open conversations and connection grounded in solidarity. As organizations, as workplaces, unions and other non-profits need to bridge our silos and have those “internal discussions about the different ways to speak,” as Antonin observes.

We profit more by thinking about how to “go digital” in ways that are informed by union values, rather than capitalism’s. That’s why I think it’s helpful for unions to think, inspired by Simpson’s concept of grounded normativity, in terms of “union intelligence” and base our digital strategies on that, not on advertising metrics.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Canada), for example, has by far the most developed union online learning program in Canada. Its WebCampusPlus hosts over 160 courses ranging from retirement planning to leadership to math skills to politics – even digital photography! The courses are available, free, to all UFCW members – and, what’s more, to their families as well. Talk about union intelligence. (We’ll learn more about WebCampusPlus in Part 2 of this article).

Unions and other non-profits reduce dependence on corporate platforms when we approach digital strategy from a place of solidarity; when we tell our stories in creative and diverse ways; when we organize our members and communities around learning opportunities; and when we build our capacity to do all of this in-house.

We tell story, we teach and learn — in solidarity. We’ll explore how in Part 2.

Is moving beyond corporate platforms like Facebook a tall order? What would Han say?

He’d say, “Never tell me the odds.”

And he’d be right.


In Part 2, I will talk to digital publishers who help non-profits publish and connect to their audience. I’ll see what popular online union education can look like and talk to unions that are getting more serious about video production. And I’ll learn from labour activists who are rediscovering how to protect our privacy and use powerful tools — tools that we control.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *