The revelation that a team of Facebook scientists in January 2012 manipulated the news feeds of almost 700 thousand users just to see how it would effect their moods has been met with responses ranging from anger to dismay to just being utterly creeped-out. Researchers reportedly chose random users to either replace negative stories with happy ones (Policeman invites homeless man into his home, kitten rescues infant from being hauled by Rottweiler, etc) or visa versa (mass road carnage, declining animal species, etc).
This meant that for some 155000 random users all positive posts were removed for a week – leaving only tales of despair and woe. And what were the conclusions drawn from Facebook’s Kafkaesque experiment in mass emotion control? The study, published in the prestigious PNAS journal on June 17, showed how altering news feed exposure of users revealed evidence of “emotional contagion”.
The staggering finding that if we see that other people on Facebook are happy it might make us momentarily happy, or alternately that we might share the pain and misfortune of others. So there we have it – the social media megalith invested big bucks, employed a team of university researchers, and covertly took a scalpel to its own users emotions in order to reach the earth shattering conclusion that humans possess empathy!
According to Adam Kramer, a Facebook scientist who led the research later explained on his own Facebook account: “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.”
Perhaps it is time to question the behaviour of a company that displays such ethical turpitude that it seems devoid of basic anthropological cognition from the outset? Judged on Kramers comment this would seem to be a corporation that considers its own capacity to attract and retain users as of more vital importance than individuals emotional states – which can be freely toyed with like a futuristic plaything.
So whats coming next? Can we expect to receive tweets of the footy scores buzzing into our phones before the match is even concluded via some technological conspiracy. Would it be a huge surprise to discover that Skype had been filming us via our bedside phone cams overnight to sell us better pillows when we wake up. Will driverless cars end up chasing us around the streets subliminally offering rides via digital cues to where ever we need to travel?
In the giant creepy monolithic world of social media algorithms – how can we most effectively sum up a users emotions in a single word? Happy. Sad. Pithy. Heart broken. And once people are reduced down to a singular cognitive state – what power could this confer on the omnipotent overlords of social media? Was this the point Facebooks little secretive tests – that once they know how to successfully manipulate users emotions social media corporations are surely in a better position to coerce them commercially.
It is certainly naïve to think that the Facebooks, twitters, linked-ins, Instagrams and Tinders of the world are operating from an egalitarian or socially benevolent pretext. These are now some of the biggest corporations in the world – and like all corporations – their bottom line is profit. But we as users do still have a choice – both about whether we will partake, and how we will engage.
Perhaps a good starting point is to always treat any media critically rather than passively. Because even these ubiquitous social media companies still need a social license to operate. For one dear friend, this weeks revelations represented a bridge too far. Her last ever post was a link to a news story on Facebooks emotion experiments with the status update: “Here is why I’m signing out from Facebook. Possibly forever. Find me on twitter or through old fashioned email peeps. This show is over.”
She described the news as a “breach of trust that I genuinely worried about – what if one of those people they experimented on took their own life? What if they suffered increased depression? For some people, these social media tools are a lifeline to an otherwise alienating world.”
Indeed, how much intrusion is too much? It is up to the users to decide when those companies behave unethically to the point where we withdraw from them completely. At some point we need to take a deep breath and question when social media in fact crosses over the threshold to become a dangerous new tool of social control. Judging by the massive online backlash that has ensued, it seems that for many Facebook has just crossed that line.
Marshall Mcluhan’s old adage that the ‘medium is the message’ seems more pertinent today than ever. Are we being lead by social media to the point where we are in danger of being blind to its influence on how we behave and, more chillingly, even how we feel?