Naomi Wolf on Cheaters and privacy lost

November 27, 2012 |

Naomi Wolf, author of the Beauty Myth amongst others, provides some an analysis of the surveillance society in the context of the television show Cheaters in Cheaters and the sinister normalisation of our surveillance society.

It provides:

Flicking through TV channels last week, I was unwillingly riveted by a reality show I had never seen before: “Cheaters”.

In ominous tones, and following the cliches of Victorian melodrama, the host in this episode, Joey Greco, walked a distraught young woman through a well-established format. A seemingly sympathetic interview detailed the young woman’s fears and suspicions; then, the camera follows a private investigator, who in turn tracks and surveils the boyfriend or husband (or girlfriend or wife) who is under suspicion of committing infidelity. We, the audience, are treated to grainy footage recording the dalliance with the other woman or other man.

Creepily, the betrayed lover is encouraged to call the deceiver so that we can see his or her verbal betrayal in real time – dialogue like, “Honey, when are you coming home? It’s so late!” “Baby, you know I am working.” This exchange, while we witness the man on the phone, but with his arm around the other woman in a restaurant. “I am working to get money to, uh, take you out!”

It makes for devastating viewing – especially as the format escalates, with the investigators revealing the surveillance video, bugged text messages and transcripts from eavesdropped phone calls to the betrayed partner. Finally, the cameras follow the action as she is asked to confront the betrayer and his paramour – which, in my viewing of two episodes, resulted in the young women attacking one another physically, while the hapless “cheater” looked on, aghast.

The person targeted by the investigator is called, on camera, the “suspect” – even though he or she is not doing anything illegal. The weekly syndicated hidden camera reality television series airs on the stations CW Plus and G4TV – and has such a massive audience, and now community (“Cheaterville”), that almost half a million people “like” the Facebook page.

Cheaters is a product that was launched – by a Texas lawyer with no background at all, as he himself notes on his own bio, in TV or film production or distribution – just before the Patriot Act changed our views of the fourth amendment. Bobby Goldstein, an attorney from Waco, Texas, rolled out the series in 2000; its offices are now in Dallas.

You could not dream up a piece of pop culture better designed to normalize the surveillance society. What is alarming is how directly the series models a blurring, or mission creep, from television surveillance into inviting ordinary citizens to accept and even embrace the role of surveillance and spying in their daily private lives.

The investigations are headed by the “Cheaters Detective Agency” – a real investigative agency. This does not just pay a starring role in a series; it actually also advertises on the homepage of the TV show, and the site makes it so easy to invite an investigative team to stalk or surveil a lover or spouse that the one-page application can be filled out in minutes.

In 2011, the TV franchise expanded with the debut of its associated “Cheaters Store”, which is even scarier: this online boutique offers people state-of-the-art equipment – much more complex than that available in my local spy shop – that lets you retrieve deleted texts from someone’s Android or iPhone; record all calls made on your home line; and video-record someone without their knowledge. “Spy on a cellphone, recover deleted texts, or set up a hidden camera!” the site cheers. Creepiest of all, in my view, is a new product that lets you install hidden cameras in someone’s electrical outlets.

Nowhere on the site that I could find, in the promotion of the TV show or the sale of the recording and spying equipment, does it warn that many laws prevent surveillance, theft of computer or phone data, or monitoring someone else’s phone without a warrant. In other words, this vastly influential TV show cum social media hub cum product empire is normalizing the idea that surveillance and intrusion are facts of everyday life.

Instead, the website encourages people to “fight infidelity” by “Post[ing] A Known Cheater Now!” In its “Cheaters Records” section, which shows photographs and names of accused “cheaters”. The heartbroken or vengeance-filled people detail the very private sexual or emotional peccadillos of the alleged cheaters. But anyone can be labeled a “cheater” by anyone who feels rejected or spurned; there is no evidence of fact-checking.

The woman in the first segment I watched was a common-law wife of the first “cheater”, with two children by him. The woman she confronted was his extracurricular girlfriend. This intrusion and public shaming could be cast sympathetically. But the second woman? She was a distraught, unconfident 19 year-old, who, in the interview, made it inadvertently clear that she was barely in any kind of relationship with the man she is stalking. “He never wants me to come over … he has stopped being loving to me.”

When the horrible confrontation arrived, and the wife asked, on live camera, appalled, “Who is this?” I could only wish, for her sake, that the 19-year-old had not had the power of national TV and a private investigator at her fingertips. Any 18 or 19 year-old with a broken heart and a credit card can now professionally stalk someone and ruin his or her life. Worse, every American who sees this show is asked to accept that invading another person’s private emails, phone calls and computer hard drives is normal, even laudable.

Such pop culture products with messages like this, or messages that glorify militarism, as I have noted here before, often seem to get an advantage in securing investment and a market niche – perhaps for such simple reasons as that they are in harmony with the nation’s prevailing winds, and with the interests of advertisers and government.

Cheaters’ popularity is a sign that the war on privacy has largely been won by the other side. If the story is entertaining enough, Americans no longer seem to care that their fourth amendment rights are in shreds.

Wolf’s despondent conclusion is somewhat overblown.  In America privacy controls are weak and there is no expectation they will be strengthened in this area given the very significant First Amendment protections given to the media.  In the UK there is a real possibility that those with determination can take action to protect themselves from some of the worst aspects of Cheaters’ activities.  It depends on the circumstances.  In Australia there is scope for protection but far less defined.

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