Facebook and empathy

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You may have seen this story, which I think is one of the biggest social media related news stories there has ever been. It has always been the case, on the internet, that if something is free, then you are the product.

It has also always been the case that Facebook’s business model relies on its users not changing the default privacy settings. In order to facilitate this, Facebook changes the privacy settings on a frequent basis. This keeps people on their toes, and each time encourages a certain number of people to give up trying to maintain a high level of privacy.

Thirdly, it has always been the case, with Facebook as with iTunes, as with Twitter, that nobody reads the licence agreement before they click Agree.

So what Facebook users didn’t realise was that they had already, apparently, agreed to be subjects of vast psychological experiments in emotional manipulation.

In a study with academics from Cornell and the University of California, Facebook filtered users news feeds – the flow of comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their social network. One test reduced users exposure to their friends “positive emotional content”, resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to “negative emotional content” and the opposite happened.The study concluded: “Emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.”

You can read more on this story here: Facebook reveals news feed experiment to control emotions | Technology | The Guardian.

Charlie Booker’s reaction to the story, also in The Guardian, is worth a read. Snip:

In other words, the fine folk at Facebook are so hopelessly disconnected from ground-level emotional reality they have to employ a team of scientists to run clandestine experiments on hundreds of thousands of their “customers” to discover that human beings get upset when other human beings they care about are unhappy.

This is a very interesting notion. The internet runs on a bedrock of nerds, and Facebook itself seems to have been developed by somebody who had so little emotional intelligence that he designed a system that encouraged people to state categorically whether they were single or in a relationship, and, in its original version, reduced the act of getting in touch with someone to the act of “poking”. Facebook’s corporate culture reflects this lack of emotional intelligence, which has side effects such as the controversial ban on photos of breastfeeding mothers. This experiment is confirmation, as Charlie Booker points out, that Facebook, as a corporate entity, doesn’t understand or have empathy.

To understand how serious this might be, read Laurie Penny’s take in The New Statesman. As she points out, as well as manipulating people’s emotional states, Facebook has previously experimented with encouraging/discouraging its users from voting.

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.

Just think for a moment about the power that Facebook has. It has 1.25 billion users. That’s a fairly large percentage of the world’s population, many of them in supposed mature democracies. The Sun newspaper sells just over 2 million copies every day. That’s half the number it was selling a couple of decades ago. And yet, British politicians are so afraid of the power of The Sun that it seems that they will do anything to ingratiate themselves to its editors and proprietors.

If The Sun has that much power with 2 million sales, how much power does Facebook have with 1.25 billion users?

Now imagine this. What if Facebook and its corporate owners were not benign? What if they decided to manipulate society and politics in its own corporate interests, as opposed to the personal, human interests of its many users?

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