Why would anyone be surprised to read this morning in The Guardian that Facebook have been experimenting (meddling?) with how they can manipulate our emotions? 

Read my review of Andrew Keen’s ‘Digital Vertigo’ in IJMR 55/4 for the reasons (better still read the whole book), but here’s an extract with my conclusions based on the two 19th century philosophic perspectives that Keen builds much of his case on: 

"So, are you a Mill supporter, or a Benthamite in your view of how we should see social media? A force for good, binding us more harmoniously together through transparency and sharing, or a destructive agent that demands we give up our individualism and right to privacy in exchange for accessing new communication tools? 

"In the 19th century life was simpler. You could read about these opposing philosophies and leave it at that. The impact on you was more likely to be intellectual – for most, the choice had limited, if any, consequences on everyday life. 

"Today it’s different. The digital world is all pervasive. We have to make a choice, and that choice could have far reaching consequences. If, as so many of us do, because we have to, you decide to use the new tools then there is a cost – we part with some of ourselves in exchange for access. 

"Keen’s book helps us understand the arguments for and against the trends in the digital world. It may not change our decision, but it should make us think more deeply about how we engage with social media, perhaps at the very least curbing our excesses in sharing ourselves with the world, and making us more aware of the likely consequences when we next open up Facebook, send a tweet or post a video on YouTube. 

"I’d like to believe it would also make those who own the social media world think in a more balanced, altruistic, way about the consequences of their strategies, but the coverage in the news suggests otherwise. Here, the Benthamite view appears to be winning, at least at present."

And in the latest experiment, the outcome of a Benthamite driven social media world is laid bare.

Facebook can be seen as one huge social experiment to see just how far humans can be pushed in the interests of transparency and in pursuit of a reveal-all world. Once you have that data, the applications start to be become interesting, profit generating and really scary. 

Consumers were warned decades ago by Vance Packard in ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ to be very wary of researchers and how their work can be put to work in persuading them to buy things, brands etc that they never knew they wanted. And, as I’ve mentioned before, the rumblings on what can be achieved through ‘traditional’ motivational research methods have never gone away as these slides from my opening remarks for the 2011 ‘IJMR Research Methods Forum’ conference illustrate:


So, why be surprised when the huge strides in communications technology lead us to where we are this morning?

What really surprised me is that apparently the editor of the article, Susan Fiske, from Princetown University is reported as now crying ‘foul’ about the ethics of this experiment. So why support it in the first place? 

I hear the deafening thunder of hooves as the herd of horses disappear over the horizon followed by the slamming of stable doors.

Coverage suggests that ethical boundaries have been breached; laws to protect privacy make have been broken, but Facebook responds with a predictable caveat emptor. So, ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ – there’s a (high?) price to pay for social media communications.

The recent NatCen report suggests that researchers need to tread very carefully when using social media as a data source, but Facebook can access data that is unavailable to external researchers in their quest to understand human behaviour, and then exploit the outcomes as they wish, but will consumers appreciate that a dividing line exists between what a social media owner can undertake as research compared to others – no, a researcher is a researcher.

I’ve been asked the question as to what IJMR’s stance would have been if the article had been submitted. A very good question, with no easy answer. As it stands, the ability to manipulate peoples’ emotional feelings in this way is an interesting experiment exploring how to influence human behaviour, and is worthy of consideration – it’s certainly of more (much more) than passing interest to readers of IJMR! 

The dataset is large, and is probably representative of Facebook members. The outcomes suggest that the conceptual model built from the research works in practice. It tells us new information about how humans behave when exposed to certain stimuli, and adds to the body of knowledge in this field. 

So far, so good. But was the experiment ethical, and legal? That’s really where there might well be some polarised views if it had gone out for peer review. 

I don’t think it’s as clear as some believe. We are back to what users of Facebook have really signed up to, and whether informed consent was necessary before conducting an experiment of this sort. So the answer is I don’t really know where we’d have ended up. 

Personally, I’d love the publicity for IJMR as most of what we publish will never make the headlines internationally as this has – but that’s just my wish to constantly ratchet up the profile and influence of IJMR. However, the coverage I’ve seen to date suggests that the article has probably not done the image of research any good in the eyes of the public.

The issue is what happens now? The genie is out of the bottle. The implications for advertisers, politicians, religious groups, terrorists etc, who are all already very sophisticated users of social media are manifold. Most importantly, would Facebook users ever be aware when the findings have, or have not, been applied.

Subliminal advertising is banned, but what about subliminal emotion manipulation? Based on the world today this may prove to be just another storm in a teacup, one step further in the erosion of privacy and a victory to the ’hidden persuaders’. 

It could be that enough-is-enough and will lead to a tougher stance by legislators. 

However, Google is already setting up new rules to minimise the impact of the judgement in Spain about the right to be forgotten (‘Google snubs stars’ pleas to spare blushes’, The Sunday Times, 29-06-14). 

I’m therefore not very optimistic on this one.

See the full study: ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’.


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