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Should Facebook toy with our moods?

By Gary Abernathy Contributing Columnist

July 10, 2014

The news last week that Facebook recently conducted an experiment designed to test whether the emotions of its users could be manipulated brought about a firestorm that is bewildering.


A Wall Street Journal article on the topic explained, “To determine whether it could alter the emotional state of its users and prompt them to post either more positive or negative content, the site’s data scientists enabled an algorithm, for one week, to automatically omit content that contained words associated with either positive or negative emotions from the central news feeds of 689,003 users.”


The story included the following expressions of outrage.


“What many of us feared is already a reality: Facebook is using us as lab rats, and not just to figure out which ads we’ll respond to but actually change our emotions,” said a blog called Animalnewyork.com.


Egads!


A Forbes.com blogger: “Is it OK for Facebook to play mind games with us for science? It’s a cool finding, but manipulating unknowing users’ emotional states to get there puts Facebook’s big toe on that creepy line.”


Yikes!


Slate.com called the experiment “unethical” and said, “Facebook intentionally made thousands upon thousands of people sad.”


So did LeBron James when he abandoned Cleveland.


Another Facebook user wrote, “Emotional manipulation is emotional manipulation, no matter how small of a sample it affected.”


True dat. So what?


Along with the outrage — ironically expressed mostly on Facebook itself — threats of lawsuits have been made.


While I have multiple issues with social media in general — particularly as it provides a worldwide forum for anonymous and irresponsible comments — this is one area about which I have trouble finding much in the way of righteous indignation. Perhaps I need Facebook to manipulate an emotion or two for me, but what’s all the fuss?


Many people who use Facebook seem to be under the delusion that they have some kind of rights when it comes to their Facebook page, whether in regard to privacy or other subjects.


While Facebook has some stated guidelines and policies about such issues, it also has a terms-of-use disclaimer, even if no one reads the fine print. Facebook clearly states that user information can be utilized for “internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” That just about covers everything and anything.


Emotional manipulation of the masses has been going on in media ever since Johannes Gutenberg’s press began rolling in the 15th century. Whether through print, radio, TV or the Internet, efforts to influence emotion go with the territory.


Did anyone ever consider suing James Cameron because “Titanic” made them cry? How ‘bout taking Stephen King to court because “The Shining” gave them sleepless nights? Perhaps Mel Brooks should have to pay damages because “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein” caused someone to literally split a gut while laughing.


Books, speeches, movies and images, whether in art galleries or online, are all designed to manipulate emotions, to cause passions or sentiments that were not initially being felt until the reader, viewer or user experienced the work that was placed in front of them.


Despite popular belief, Facebook is not some kind of benign public service that exists for the well-being of the citizenry. At its core, Facebook is nothing more than another form of media that makes billions of dollars in advertising.


The Wall Street Journal noted, “Companies like Facebook, Google Inc. and Twitter rely almost solely on data-driven advertising dollars. As a result, the companies collect and store massive amounts of personal information.”


Facebook can be a wonderful tool. Just about every media organization in the world has Facebook and Twitter pages, where stories are posted and users make comments. Everyone understands going in that Facebook and Twitter collect and use data from these pages for a variety of purposes.


Facebook, Twitter, etc. have a stake in determining which ads should be targeted to a certain group of people to maximize profits. Just like a manipulative movie formula that keeps people coming back for sequels, Facebook has every right to figure out what triggers certain emotions in its users, then pull those emotional triggers, and then turn a profit from influencing those emotions. It’s Basic Advertising Principle 101.


Television has been doing the same thing for decades, and the same rules apply here — if you don’t want to be part of the experiment, stay off Facebook. Believe it or not, there is no law, yet, that you have to have a Facebook page.


Aye, there’s the rub. Facebook has become such an integral, daily, in some cases hourly part of people’s lives that they can’t live without it — kinda like an addictive drug. But why blame Facebook? What business in the world wouldn’t love to be almost indispensible?


Log on to Facebook and enjoy. Just understand that you do not own Facebook. When you’re on it, Facebook owns you, and with your full consent, as described in the fine print.


Gary Abernathy works for Civitas Media as a regional content director in Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @abernathygary.