By altering people’s newsfeeds to show more “positive” or “negative” content, Facebook’s “research” sought to understand how feelings can spread. Image: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Facebook's manipulation: It can manipulate your mood. It can affect whether you vote. When do we start to worry?

The social network admits manipulating its users’ emotions through the content it put in their newsfeeds. Think that’s creepy? A couple of years ago, it influenced their voting patterns, too. When do we get scared about what Facebook could do with its power?

When you clicked the little box that said you agreed to Facebook’s terms of service, you agreed to be a lab rat. 

The internet is alight with news of a study conducted by the social media company’s research department into “emotional contagion”. Over 600,000 people had their Facebook newsfeeds altered to reflect more “positive” or “negative” content, in order to determine if seeing more sad messages makes a person sadder. The “negative” content wasn’t entirely censored from the newsfeeds of the test subjects – if you checked in to your friend’s personal page, you could still see if he’d had a good day or not. But the newsfeeds themselves were tweaked without warning, and the emotional responses of test subjects tracked, judged by changes in their use of language.

The findings of the study – that people are influenced by the emotions of others online as they are offline – surprised precisely nobody. The findings are not the point. The point, and indeed the fact that has sent ripples of outrage around the web, is that Facebook can do this. Facebook can manipulate the emotions of hundreds of thousands of people just to see what happens. 

I’ve been digging into this story for a number of weeks now. Having read the paper and spoken to a number of experts in the field, including those who are more informed than me about the dirt-under-the-fingernails procedures of psychological research, I am not convinced that the Facebook team knows what it’s doing. It does, however, know what it can do – what a platform with access to the personal information and intimate interactions of 1.25 billion users can do. 

Nobody has ever had this sort of power before. No dictator in their wildest dreams has been able to subtly manipulate the daily emotions of more than a billion humans so effectively. There are no precedents for what Facebook is doing here. Facebook itself is the precedent. What the company does now will influence how the corporate powers of the future understand and monetise human emotion. Dr Adam Kramer, the man behind the study and a longtime member of the company’s research team, commented in an excited Q & A that “Facebook data constitutes the largest field study in the history of the world.” The ethics of this situation have yet to be unpacked.

I put a number of questions to Facebook’s representatives, including Dr Kramer, over the course of three weeks of phone calls, emails and direct messages. I was repeatedly told that Adam Kramer was too busy to talk to me and would remain too busy for the foreseeable future, although Dr Kramer himself told me that he couldn’t speak to me without the say so of the press team. Facebook were unavailable for comment. Facebook went to some lengths to be as unavailable as possible for comment without directly telling me where to shove my inquiry. Facebook were unavailable for comment in the way that a man who, on hearing the doorbell, runs out of the back door and over the garden wall is not at home to visitors.

I asked if it was possible for users to find out if their own newsfeeds had been altered. No answer. I asked if it was possible for users to opt out of any further such studies. No answer, but if I’d got one, I suspect it would have been “no” – all users agree implicitly to be experimented upon when they sign up for the service. I asked if anyone had bothered to check up on all the people in whom negative emotions were apparently induced. No answer.

 

The one thing Facebook’s representatives would tell me is that yes, they had indeed carried out the study and yes, they had been looking into the effects of emotional contagion for some time. Right now, the internet is outraged that Facebook played with the emotions of over half a million users in the name of research, without their consent. But one key thing to remember here – and what becomes clear upon reading through half a decade’s worth of news reports – is that Facebook have been doing this for years. The company’s suggestion that it doesn’t understand all the fuss about its “emotional contagion” research is rather undermined by the fact that it has been conducting said research at great expense and for some time. 

Their barely-consensual experiments with manipulating emotion and ideologies, rather than merely tracking their patterns, are not new. They are ongoing. Facebook is deeply invested in “what happens when you apply the science of how people relate to each other to social technology”, to quote from the prospectus for their recent “Compassion Research Day”. The ethics of altering people’s experience of the world on this scale, without their consent, for the purposes of research, do not appear to trouble the Facebook research team.

Emotional engineering is, and always has been, Facebook’s business model. It is the practice of making itself socially indispensable that has ensured that, for many millions of people, Facebook has become the default front page of the internet. Their newsfeed is literally that – it’s the first place many of us go to find out what’s been happening in the world, and in the worlds of those we love, those we like, and those we once met at a party and got an awkward friend request from two weeks later. Nathan Jurgenson, a social media theorist, researcher at Snapchat and editor at the New Inquiry, told me that: “This is part of the terms of service. All design plays at our emotions. That study didn’t mention the like button, which is itself emotional engineering.” 

Of course, actual newspapers have been doing this since the days of hot type. They select stories to represent a particular worldview, alter content to suit their advertisers, change headlines, circulate propaganda. But Facebook is not a newspaper: it is a distribution platform, a site of social exchange. The equivalent here is not, just for example, the Sun newspaper deciding to back up Rupert Murdoch’s view of the world, but your local pub, shop, supermarket and post office suddenly refusing to stock anything but the Sun without prior warning. 

Most experiments of this sort, although there have been few on this scale, offer subjects a blind choice on the assumption that the choices will be harmless to them. Aleks Krotoski, an expert in internet research methods who has a PhD in social research, told me that while the study passed two ethics research boards, “for such a networked study, ethics boards consider the following when waiving the need to gain informed consent: the research must not involve greater than minimal risk”. What Facebook has done, by its own claims, is not harmless. The test induced negative emotions in tens of thousands of people in order to prove a point. 

Writing at Medium, Zeynep Tufekci identifies this as “a Gramscian model of social control: one in which we are effectively micro-nudged into ‘desired behaviour’ as a means of societal control”. That sort of control was never possible on this scale before. Television couldn’t do it. Radio couldn’t do it. Newspapers couldn’t keep track of how an individual reader was feeling and who they were talking to and determine what message to send. Social media companies can do all of that, and more. This has already extended to control of voting behaviour.

Facebook has already manipulated the voting behaviour of its users, and bragged about it, too.

I’m going to give you a second to consider the implications of that.

Here’s what happened. In 2010, Facebook made small, experimental alterations to the banners it released reminding US citizens to vote. Most users saw a banner encouraging voting, with images below the banner of Facebook friends who had already voted, or who had at least clicked the button claiming so (four per cent of people turned out to be lying about that). Two randomly-selected groups of 600,000 users – this seems to be the magic number for Facebook’s in-house wonks – saw a message without the faces of their friends, or no message at all. The 2012 study based on this data claimed that Facebook’s “get out and vote” messages may have caused an extra 340,000 votes to be cast, and that merely manipulating the message changed those numbers by tens of thousands. They determined this by examining public voter rolls: cross-checking private status information against the records the state holds on your political activity. 

The abstract proudly declares that its results “show that the messages directly influenced political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behaviour of millions of people”. The lead researcher on the voter-manipulation experiment, Dr J Fowler, told CNN: “If we want to make the world a better place on a massive scale, we should focus not just on changing a person’s behavior, but also on utilising the network to influence that person’s friends.”

For you and me, this is a massive secret political experiment on the creepy-totalitarian side of interesting. For a senator, or a Member of Parliament, this news means and meant much, much more. It means power. Power of a new and breathtaking kind. Power that demands to be paid attention to and courted. 

What if Facebook, for example, chose to subtly alter its voting message in swing states? What if the selected populations that didn’t see a get-out-and-vote message just happened to be in, say, majority African-American neighbourhoods? The fact that Facebook are obviously good guys who get movies made about them with Aaron Sorkin scripts and Trent Reznor soundtracks and would obviously never do such a thing doesn’t change the fact that they could do it, and more if they chose, and then claim it as research. 

The studies, taken individually, are creepy quasi-consensual experiments on individuals’ most intimate feelings and most important choices. Taken together, there's a terrifying pattern.

Facebook’s service is not free. Facebook’s product is your information, your worldview, your memories and experience, and that is what you pay with every time you log in. That information is power of a quality that is can be traded upon and sold.

The simple answer would, of course, be that if you don’t want to be spied on, emotionally manipulated and studied, quit Facebook. But that’s not how the modern economy of information works. It never has been. There is a cost to not participating in these new networks. The choice not to participate is the choice to miss out on events, birthdays, status updates. Your best friend’s wedding photos. Your young cousin’s call for help at four in the morning. Professional networks, like “Binders Full of Women Writers”, the great big glorious global group of authors and journalists I got an invite to last week. And, most importantly, news about the world. The recent articles I’ve read on the the Facebook emotional contagion study have been linked on my Facebook newsfeed. I find my own emotions negatively impacted by the news, and can’t help but wonder if anyone’s tracking that fact, if perhaps I should try to throw them off the scent by posting some pictures of adorable baby sloths.

More people live a part of their lives on Facebook than live in any single country on earth, apart from China. It is, effectively, a country itself, a country of pure information where the authorities know everything you do and can change everything you see, without even telling you first. They can make sure you only hear happy news on a particular day, to encourage you to buy more MacGuffins. And they can manipulate the way you vote.

If Facebook is a country, then it is a corporate dictatorship. This is not a metaphor. I believe that it is beyond time that we began to hold social networking not just to the laws of the market, but to the common laws of the societies we live in and the societies we want to see. Principles like the right to receive information without impediment. Principles like not making tens of thousands of people sad for your personal gain. Principles like corporations not messing about with the voting behavior of their users in any way, for any reason. And right now is when those principles, those precedents, will be decided.

Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is available for pre-order. She will also be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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