Facebook and empathy


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?

How the BBC leans to the right


In a fascinating extract from a forthcoming book called Is the BBC in Crisis? Professor Justin Lewis details some of the ways in which the BBC fails in its mission to be impartial.

(I’ve long believed that the BBC’s ‘impartiality’ should be towards the truth, so that when the facts have a left-wing or liberal bias, there should be no need to wheel out the likes of Nigel Lawson to rebut the findings of 97% of climate scientists.)

Anyway, regular listeners/viewers will hardly be surprised to learn that the BBC has a right-wing bias – especially under a Conservative government, because of worries about the Conservatives (who are in power but have no mandate) eviscerating the BBC through the licence fee settlement.

Recent evidence from the most recent BBC Trust commissioned impartiality review appears to support this view. The research, by my colleagues at Cardiff, compared BBC news when Labour were in power (in 2007) with coverage under a Conservative-led coalition (in 2012). The study found, by a series of measures, that ‘Conservative dominance in 2012’ of BBC news was ‘by a notably larger margin than Labour dominance in 2007’ (Wahl-Jorgenson et al 2013: 5).

Beyond the main parties, the study suggested that the BBC is more likely than either ITV or Channel 4 to use sources from the right, such US Republicans or Ukip, and less likely to use sources from the left, such as US Democrats and the Green Party. But it is the imbalance between Conservative and Labour – by margins of three to one for party leaders and four to one for ministers/shadow ministers – that was most striking, especially since the research indicated that this rightward shift was a strictly BBC phenomenon.

The other interesting aspect of the article is its focus on the way the news agenda (news values) of the BBC also has a right-wing bias. They spend far more time discussing issues of interest to the right (e.g. immigration) than they do discussing issues of interest to the left (e.g. inequality).

I noticed during Party Conference season that the BBC spent much more time reporting the UKiP conference than they did the Green Party one, which was happening at the same time. What’s tragic about this, of course, is that ‘blind testing’ tends to show that twice as many people support Green policies as they do the foam-flecked ravings of the UKiPers. In other words, the BBC should be spending twice as much time covering issues if interest to Greens (climate change, inequality) than they do dealing with UKiP issues (immigration, immigration).

Read more: Extract: ‘How the BBC leans to the right’ – Opinion – Media – The Independent.

Seven new social classes – really?



The BBC has a story about the results of a “huge survey” they undertook (and then again, on a smaller, more scientific scale), which, they say, leads to the conclusion that there are (now) seven social classes.

Personally, I’m not happy with their use of the word “class” here – it’s playing to the British obsession with class, but I think these are classifications rather than classes.

I also think that the BBC appear to have inadvertently (re)invented the classic Young and Rubicam international market segmentation (cross-cultural consumer characterisations) known as the 4Cs.

My students will remember from class that the 4Cs match social classification against values in coming up with seven groups, which are:

Resigned, Struggler, Mainstream, Aspirer, Succeeder, Explorer, and Reformer.

I’ve always liked the 4Cs, not least because they factor in values as well as income, meaning (for example) that Explorers and Reformers may have less money than Succeeders, but are more adventurous consumers of both goods and media.

The new survey has also factored in forms of “wealth” other than the economic capital that separates the 1% from the rest of us. They call these social and cultural capital respectively. Young and Rubicam bundled these together as “values”, which seems both more vague and simpler.

Here’s a flavour of what the BBC’s survey has concluded:

Elite – the most privileged group in the UK, distinct from the other six classes through its wealth. This group has the highest levels of all three capitals

Established middle class – the second wealthiest, scoring highly on all three capitals. The largest and most gregarious group, scoring second highest for cultural capital

Technical middle class – a small, distinctive new class group which is prosperous but scores low for social and cultural capital. Distinguished by its social isolation and cultural apathy

(See BBC News – Huge survey reveals seven social classes in UK)

The groups are divided as follows: Elite; Established Middle Class; Technical Middle Class; New Affluent Workers; Traditional Working Class; Emergent Service Workers; and Precariat, or Precarious Proletariat.

It seems to be that, unlike the 4Cs with their emphasis on values, these new classifications still give more weight to economic wealth, and also hint that it’s quite hard to shift between groups. In economic terms, this is probably true. The Emergent Service Workers of today are unlikely to ever have the economic capital of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, who have wealth locked up in pension funds and savings.

In fact, the “hidden” economic capital of pensions, savings, and investments is what separates the bottom four groups from the top four – far more than their so-called social and cultural capital.

Marx would dismiss social and cultural capital, of course, as comforting illusions. Follow the money is always the main message.

Which brings us back to that nebulous idea of values, which is something I prefer: rather than the clumsy “precariat”, for example, I understand the terms resigned and struggler. We all know what a succeeder looks like, and also aspirers. I think that values are a more powerful idea, in the end, and tell you far more about a person and their likely patterns of consumption and lifestyle.

I think there’s a lot more nuance than the seven new groups imply. I think “Emergent Service Workers”, with their high cultural and social capital and low economic capital will map quite effectively to reformers but also to explorers. Sometimes, these people will be leading hedonistic exploratory lifestyles; but others within the group will be trying to change the world.

And when it comes to changing the world, it’s far more important that people recognise the values they share in common than it is for people to envy those who have more economic capital.

Ownership is the key to the corruption of the media


Good stuff at the Leveson enquiry, as always, but yesterday especially connected with media plurality and ownership. Seumas Milne writes in the Guardianabout the link between ownership and corruption (see snip and link below)

Image representing Rupert Murdoch as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase


But what do we mean by corruption? It can seem like an abstract concept. Being corrupt essentially means that you lose your moral compass (sense of right and wrong), and cease to do the right thing for the right reasons. Corruption has a direct impact on what philosophers call the good life, by which they don’t mean the 70s TV sitcom but the sense that there is a right way to live, a way in which everybody is free to pursue happiness in their own way, without adversely affecting the happiness of anyone else.

Once corruption creeps in, people cease to be concerned with the public good (happiness for everyone) and focus instead on the interests of a small group of people. I didn’t say “the happiness of” there because it often seems that – for this small group of people – happiness takes a back seat. Corrupted as they are, they’re not really concerned anymore with happiness, but have other priorities. Chiefly these priorities are to do with power – the power to make society run in the way that they want; the power to accumulate profits and drive out the competition.

At issue here is the question of whether Rupert Murdoch (and his son James) used their media power to influence government policy. Murdoch claimed at the Leveson that he “never asked” a politician to do anything. But this is not how power is exercised. If you have to ask, you’re not powerful enough. For the truly powerful, the world just is the way they want it to be. They’re not interested in how it happens. Meanwhile, in the background, people are running around trying to make them happy.

It doesn’t matter whether the support of the Sun newspaper is essential to win an election in this country. What matters is that politicians have always believed that it is. Personally, I think they’re probably right to think so, because newspapers don’t ever have to influence “everyone” – they only have to change the minds of those who habitually change their minds.

Elections are won in this country in specific places by specific groups of voters. If you live in one of these “swing” constituencies, you may have seen the party colours of your MP change over the years. Very few seats ever really switch sides. So it’s in these areas where the voters do switch around that the influence is felt. In other words, the Sun and other newspapers do not have to influence voters all over the country; and they don’t have to influence all voters: just the ones that frequently change their votes. By creating enough “swing” – enough of a momentum for change – these “floating” voters dictate the result of every General Election.

But as the evidence to the inquiry has demonstrated, it’s the corporate ownership of the press and media – and News International‘s dominant share of the market, delivered by Margaret Thatcher and reinforced by Blair – that gave Murdoch his mafia-like grip on politics and shaped the media’s reporting of everything from Iraq to financial deregulation.

Which is why Ed Miliband‘s demand today to set limits to cross-media ownership and the share of the newspaper market controlled by one proprietor (also backed by Major earlier in the day) represents a significant break with two decades of political class deference to the media monopolists. Added to the promotion of different forms of ownership – even more important in the digital era – that would start to widen media freedom and diversity.

via Ownership is the key to the corruption of the media | Seumas Milne | Comment is free | The Guardian.

The Murdoch and News Corporation scandal wasn’t about Conservative Party sleaze – but it is now – Telegraph


Here are the News International crowd: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, David Miliband, David Blunkett, John Reid, Tessa Jowell, Michael Gove, George Osborne, William Hague. David Cameron, John Whittingdale and Jeremy Hunt (as well as Mr Hunt’s brainless sidekick, Ed Vaizey) should also be added to this list.

And here are the refuseniks: Vince Cable, Tom Watson, George Galloway, Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke. This is a much shorter list. My hunch is that their integrity has paid off and we are coming to the end of the Murdoch era, which was based around a cult of celebrity, collusion, criminality and deceit.

via The Murdoch and News Corporation scandal wasn’t about Conservative Party sleaze – but it is now – Telegraph.

Tabloid rule | The Economist

The Economist

Image via Wikipedia

Essential reading from The Economist, in this thoughtful and balanced article by Bagehot. You read all the way to the end to see the positive side of “Tabloid Rule”.

They thus tempt governments into policymaking by headline, a method that prizes speed, simplicity and emotional satisfaction over sober analysis of costs and benefits. Tabloid-wooing helps explain the authoritarian streak of the last Labour government (and much besides). A desire for positive headlines helps to account for several of the current coalition government’s dubious policies, from a pledge to cap net inward migration, to the decision to shield the National Health Service from public-spending cuts. Years of hostile headlines about the European Union have made sensible public debate of Britain’s EU interests almost impossible: instead successive governments talk tough at home while pursuing pragmatism in Brussels.

via Bagehot: Tabloid rule | The Economist.

Twitter says it’s all #nickcleggsfault


The rapid responses on Twitter indicate just how much shorter the feedback loop now is for the mainstream media and electors – and how dangerous it can be to attack politicians who are riding a wave of popularity.

Whether it will have any effect on the readers either of Twitter or of the newspapers is harder to tell. Clearly, Twitter has never been the favoured stamping ground for Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express or Daily Telegraph readers. And it is unlikely that any of the papers' editors will be taking notice of what it says.

via Twitter says it’s all Nick Clegg’s fault in ironic swipe at newspapers |
Technology |

Open Rights Group: stop disconnection without trial


You may recall that during the summer Peter Mandelson, an unelected politician (he was appointed to the House of Lords and parachuted into government without the need for pesky democracy) sat down for lunch with David Geffen, a multi-millionaire entertainment industry mogul.

The result, after a few jeroboams of champagne and a waffer thin mint was a new, aggressive, government policy on internet file sharing.

Never mind that the entertainment industry has a track record of exaggerating the pain and fictionalising the lost sales figures caused by downloading, what happened to democracy? What about the interests of, you know, the people? What happened to the more moderate proposals in the government’s own Digital Britain report?

Now the Open Rights Group are campaigning against Mandelson’s Lunchtime lawmaking. There’s even a petition. Follow the link.

Open Rights Group | Stop Disconnection without trial.

If it’s August, it must be time to give the education system a good kicking


Media Studies is under the cosh again, as the Tories tout plans to revamp the education system, again, to “reward” schools who teach “harder” subjects like Physics and Maths.

Why not go the whole hog and go back to teaching Latin and Ancient Greek? Those are pretty hard. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. Oh, I remember, those subjects are mostly irrelevant in our modern, media-saturated, technological age. But, I hear you argue, studying the Classics is a great way of developing wider transferrable skills: writing skills, speaking skills, how to construct an argument, how to research, and so on. Absolutely true, I respond, but that’s exactly the kind of transferrable life skill you get from a “soft” ‘A’ level like, oh, I don’t know, English, or Business Studies, Government and Politics, Law, Critical Thinking, Art History, or indeed Media or Film Studies.

But Media studies is an easy target, especially (big surprise) for the, you know, the media. If numbers could talk, I bet they’d have a thing or two to say about maths. You know what I’m talking about.

We live in a world dominated by media: mobile telephony, television, radio, internet, even print. Oh, but we’re not supposed to study it. Rupert Murdoch’s company owns television networks in the USA, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. They own 17.5% of ITV. They own MySpace. They own movie studios, and – oh look – a web site called Rottentomatoes which purports to be a film review site. They own powerful and influential newspapers in the USA, Europe, Australia. Newspapers like The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Sun. They own HarperCollins book publishers, and the Times Literary Supplement which – oh look – reviews books.

But we’re not allowed to study the impact and effects of all that ownership and influence, because we’re a “soft” subject.

Newspapers all over the world are being crushed by new media. But we’re not supposed to study that.

Peter Mandelson sits down for dinner with David Geffen and starts demanding that internet service providers be given powers to cut off the accounts of persistent downloaders. Yes, that’s right, this is the same message that Big Media are feeding governments all over the world – France, Germany, Canada, Australia, USA, UK: the infamous three strikes rule that would see your entire life cut off just because you’re accused of illegal downloading. No trial, no due process, just cut off: all your social life, your banking, your photos, your access to news about the world.

No sense that American David Geffen had undue influence over a non-elected representative of the British government? Where’s the democracy? Where are the people? Lord Mandelson sits down with Geffen, and that’s the new government policy? I don’t remember voting for that.

But we’re not supposed to study all that, because we’re a soft subject.

There should be no right of reply for fascists.


We’re being treated at the moment to the unedifying sight/sound of the BBC bending over backwards to be “balanced” in its reporting of the British National Party and their two European Parliament seats.

The Beeb are being careful not to criticise the BNP in any way. They’re also chiding other guests for making statements about the BNP to which the BNP are not able to respond. The problem with trying to be “unbiased” when dealing with fascists is that you end up sounding like the fascists have a fair point.

The BNP are a racist party. Other media outlets, not hamstrung by a need for “balance”, have investigated BNP members and reported their clear, recent, blatant racism. On the 31 May, for example, The Guardian reported on the abhorrent views expressed by prospective BNP candidates:

[T]his month the veneer slipped when it emerged that a Salford-based BNP candidate in the European elections had set his Facebook status to read “Wogs go home”. Eddy O’Sullivan, 49, wrote: “They are nice people – oh yeah – but can they not be nice people in the fucking Congo or… bongo land or whatever?” O’Sullivan, who also joined an internet group called “Fuck Islam”, denied that the comments were racist and insisted they were made in private conversations between individuals.

Ah, the “private conversation” defence, meaning that it’s okay to be racist as long as it’s with your racist friends. We’ve heard this defence from Ron Atkinson (who used the N-word when he thought the mic was off) and Carole Thatcher (who used the Golly-word when she thought she was among friends). It’s like saying you only stole the money because you thought you weren’t going to get caught.

So the BNP are nasty, racist, vicious people who are taking advantage of some people’s ignorance and convincing them that “immigrants” are to blame for the recession. The truth is, if you arse around at school, boil your brain with booze and fags, and leave with no qualifications, then somebody from India or China – from anywhere – who has worked hard and applied themselves throughout their lives is going to get the job, and you aren’t.

The BBC’s producer guidelines call for “comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage”. That the BBC have interpreted this to mean that the BNP get to pretend they’re not fascists and nobody is allowed to say otherwise is a travesty. Comprehensive coverage would include the views of the vast majority of people in this country (somewhere around 59 million) who didn’t and would never vote for the BNP. Authoritative coverage would mean reporting the facts about their not-so-hidden racist views. And being impartial doesn’t mean that you can’t report the truth. I’ll impartially tell you right now that it’s not raining outside my house at the moment, but the “balanced” view of the BBC would involve finding some nutter to say that it is.

They did this, you’ll recall, with the MMR vaccine scare. For literally years, they reported the nutcase minority view that MMR could cause autism as if it held equal weight with the reasoned scientific view that it did not. This caused no end of confusion and has led to the worst rates of Measles etc. in living memory. There are still people around who doubt that MMR is safe, thanks to the BBC’s “balanced” (but completely wrong) reporting.

Here’s the BBC’s mission:

BBC mission

To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.

Our vision
To be the most creative organisation in the world.

Our values
Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.
Audiences are at the heart of everything we do.
We take pride in delivering quality and value for money.
Creativity is the lifeblood of our organisation.
We respect each other and celebrate our diversity so that everyone can give their best.
We are one BBC: great things happen when we work together.

I’ve added emphasis to the words “independent”, “honest”, and “celebrate our diversity”.

What I’m trying to say here is that it’s about time the BBC grew some and called the fascists what they are. Whether they’re in the studio to “defend” themselves or not. No right of reply for fascists: wrong is wrong.