News is coming out about Facebook initiated and largely conducted social research experiment examining the effects of various types of emotionally loaded messages on the “mood” of selected Facebook (FB) users. The details of the study are now becoming widely known and it is clear that the actual study was the result of a combination of naivety and hubris on the part of FB staff who didn’t realize that there might be a very strong negative reaction to this kind of activity.
There is a substantial buzz in the academic community and its surrounds about the use of such experimental subjects without formal authorization, conventionally a major no-no for academic research. There is also some additional buzz concerning the fact that FB is intervening in this kind of way with its “timeline” or main information feed/flow (the `creepiness` factor), although information about this has been widely known to anyone who is interested for some time.
I think however, that we should be celebrating this research and particularly those who chose to publish it, as it, like Snowden (if inadvertently) gives us a clear window into the reality of what another of the major pillars of the Interneted Society is doing/capable of doing which we otherwise might not have been so acutely aware. By publishing the study the FB folks shone a searchlight on the highly significant capacity of FB to intervene, manage and ultimately manipulate the information flow through FB and thus either directly or indirectly intervene into, manage and manipulate the range of activities which are built on the FB platform and equally impact and manipulate/direct the “stream of digital consciousness” which FB represents and which appears to be so highly influential for so many people.
We have learned several things from this, most of which we already knew but didn`t really want to know that:
1. FB messaging operates both at the formal informational level and more deeply at the mood (subliminal?) level. Those who are immersed in the continuous flow/feed of FB postings are open to some degree of management/manipulation/control by those who control that flow and this is over and above the specifics/details of the content of the flow
2. FB is (not surprisingly) quite aware of these possible, even likely effects and has an active interest in using these in support of its business model
3. FB sees no barriers to its use of its algorithms in this way either ethical or regulatory and its concern at least to date appears to be with its with having `upset` its customers/users and not with dealing with the matter that caused the upset.
The issue here of course, is not one fairly limited social research project conducted by what appears to be a fairly clueless (and likely) junior researcher but rather what this demonstrates concerning the potential deep and pervasive power and influence of a/the major Internet corporations. The issue is thus not the fairly minor incursion against research ethics that Facebook has been caught doing, but rather what it tells us about what Facebook could and very likely is doing on a day-to-day basis—managing and manipulating information flows, giving priority to some messages and messengers and rendering others more or less invisible; and all behind a more or less invisible cloak with the suggestion that all is `free` and `open` and one is able to be in more or less direct and unimpeded contact with one`s `friends`.
Facebook currently claims some 1.250 billion users worldwide. It is widely understood as being a basic framework for a whole range of social, political, advocacy and even economic interactions. Through its purchase and redistribution of bandwidth in Less Developed Countries it is seen by many in those countries as the Internet itself since being a free service it effectively crowds out other non-free services and opportunities for web/Internet access and use.
Thus any capacity to manipulate the flow of information/postings through Facebook could have quite severe consequences in a number of areas not least of which are the variety of roles that FB plays in various political activities throughout the world with the events in the Arab Spring being only the most widely noted.
But all of this has been known for some time and widely discussed. What is new in the current information/discussion is the possible role of FB in influencing and potentially even controlling the thinking/cognition of at least some and perhaps many through its manipulation of its feed. We know quite a lot about the relationship between popular mood and electoral behaviour and it might be anticipated that there are similar relationships between mood and other forms of behaviours and things like decision-making, action taking, responding to other kinds of messages and stimuli and so on.
“Of course, the cultural industry and mass media are not the only places where the manipulation of the unconscious may actively be contemplated. The formidable challenge that confronts the cultural critic is the scenario where the battlefront of ideology has shifted predominantly from the control of political consciousness to the technological manipulation of the ineffable unconscious, the latter by no means being limited to the use and abuse of mind-altering drugs manufactured by big biochemical companies, which critics have amply documented and analyzed. In this regard, the insights of the Frankfurt School critics prove instructive in helping us rethink the conditions of critical imperative, and they are instructive precisely by virtue of their rigorous critique of technocracy and instrumental reason and their failure to engage with information theory and cybernetics in their time. This failure can be crippling because, if the unconscious rather than the consciousness has turned into the primary field of ideological manipulation by the dominant class, what is the future of reason and reasoned critiques?”
[Lydia H. Liu, “The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious,” Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010, p.35] Quoted by Mark Stahlman in a post to the Nettimes e-list 6/30/14.
The wealth, global reach, technical skill, effective monopoly position, extremely wide range of areas of active use, and more or less complete lack of regulation/means to ensure some conformance with the public good however it might be defined, of the major Internet corporations such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and eBay is something that has not been seen before although there are some comparisons with the role of the (railway and energy) trusts in the pre-WWI period.
These companies appear to have far outreached the capacity of any single government to regulate their behaviour or their influence/power including over public policy analysis, discussion and decision making.
This above has to be seen as apiece with the capacity of Google’s control over its search algorithm to control and manipulate the access to the range of human knowledge, and what we know from Snowden concerning the capacity of the NSA (and presumably other spy agencies) for pervasive surveillance, particularized individual information to a very high degree of granularity and ultimately the capacity to intervene into the range of software and hardware instrumentality on which virtually all of the transactions and interactions of daily life have come to find their platform.
The putting into place of this overt and implicit framework of digital data, information, knowledge, with conceptual, subliminal management, intervention, intrusion and control represents a highly significant potential assault against individual and collective freedoms—all of course, while on the surface maintaining the `Internet Freedom` orthodoxy of `freedom of expression`, `freedom of speech`, `freedom of association`–the Internet as `neutron bomb`–destroying the implicit capacity for independence of thought and of action while on the surface maintaining a bland exterior of openness and `freedom`.
Many of course, are arguing that such actions of manipulation are the very nature of advertising and even marketing and that even the use of subliminal messages has a long history. However, what is new in this context is the capacity to intervene, mediate and even direct the entire overt and implicit environment for whatever activity or group or individual stream which may be of interest. In such an environment the degree of involvement or significance of FB in the activity etc. is the degree to which the possibility for external manipulation and even control is available.
Equally of course, as a medium for social connectivity and discourse the role of FB as an intermediary/filter has been relatively little examined. Much is made and continuously of the role of social media in general in enabling various kinds of social interactions but little attention is paid overall to how that medium itself acts as a filter and thus as a potential direct but effectively invisible intervenor in those interactions.
But now, with the veil having been lifted for a moment where can/do we go with this knowledge? Clearly existing instrumentalities are unable (or unwilling) to intervene in this context–either because they don’t have sufficient jurisdiction, they are unaware of the significance, or because they are ideologically and economically aligned with the interests of those doing the interventions.
Only through some type of concerted, coordinated action across national lines and towards the development of appropriate transnational governance and regulatory mechanisms will there be the possibility of ensuring that the “Facebook Generation” is not something rather more ominous and significant than simply a fanciful advertising slogan.
How to do this while maintaining the evident openness, spontaneity, and capacity for enabling peer to peer connections, and the entire range of non-corporate mediated activities and enablements is of course, the challenge, but to shirk from this is to give over the opportunity to direct the future to a very small cluster of elite corporate and governmental players.