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Facebook's Mind Experiments: Just Media As Usual

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Yes, "furor erupted" over Facebook's massive psychological experiment to control user emotions by changing the configuration of posts.

How naive are we, really? Of course Facebook wants to control your thoughts — that's the whole point of media.

Emotional manipulation in the media is nothing new. That's why we have Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps Facebook's experiment was more disturbing because of its scale, and the fact that it failed to alert or gain the consent of its users.

But anybody thinking that the trend of media companies using real time user data to control reactions of its audience is something new is mistaken. 

Playing with Data

Here's what Facebook did: It tweaked an algorithm to selectively remove content that contained words associated with either positive or negative emotions from the central news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users.

Researchers found that when Facebook showed users more positive posts, they were more likely to share positive updates. When Facebook showed users more negative posts, they were more likely to share negative status updates. The results of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The fact that Facebook did not tell users it was doing this or even admit to wrongdoing after the information became public created a lot of blowback. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the activity.

EPIC contends that Facebook is subject to a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission which requires the company to obtain users' consent prior to sharing user information with third parties. 

The mechanics of how Facebook went about this were no doubt wrong, but the general approach — gathering data on you and experimenting with the content you are presented — happens, legally, in the online media industry every day. Users who think their information might be "private" or not used to emotionally manipulate others, need a reality check.

Toying with Your Emotions

Media itself, and especially advertising, is about human emotional manipulation. Think of the basic Coca Cola commercial — I bet there are already a few in your head — and think of how it's used to brainwash you into a positive association between the carbonated sugar beverage and feeling good about life.

Online media is now taking these relationships a step further. Not only can content and advertisements be shown to you, but they can be measured and manipulated to great effect. This is why the online advertising is a massive and growing industry — because the data and content is dynamic, and it can be adjusted on the fly. 

The use of media as a emotional control mechanism — and for propaganda — is nothing new of course. Take a look at the way somebody like Vladimir Putin uses control over Russian TV. Online media takes this power a step further because it measures the one-to-one individual reaction to media elements. 

Walter Lippman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and media critic, wrote of mass media control in Public Opinion (1922). His work described a ruling elite class controlling the masses through mass media. Lippmann introduced the concept of “manufacture of consent." He wrote:

That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough …  as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner."

Interesting. The implication is that the masses can be manipulated through psychological research and communication. Sound a bit like the Facebook experiment? Keep in mind this was in 1922. Interesting that Lippman thought that coupling psychological research with media could influence democracy, isn't it? 

The Power of Advertising

Another great media critic, Marshall McLuhan, wrote about how advertising images affect the human psyche. In his book, The Mechanical Bride, published in 1951, he described the manipulation and control of the individuals through advertising. Specifically, McLuhan thought that one of the primary goals of advertising was to turn women into objects of desire and to convince them that certain products would make them more desirable. 

McLuhan is credited for coining the term "Global Village," and he thought that media technology would make us all increasingly connected, and as a consequence, subject to manipulation. Sound familiar?

 

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