In the event you are a part of the population who is digitally
challenged or have hidden under a news rock for the past week, a social
media story has been sweeping the nation and has many people fighting
On June 17, researchers from the University of California at
San Francisco and Cornell University released a report in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, the
scientists, along with the help of Facebook, manipulated the newsfeeds
of nearly 700,000 Facebook users for one week in January of 2012. The
goal was to quantify how the emotions of the users could be changed by
showing them either predominantly positive or predominantly negative
The scientists were able to prove the nature of the
stories did alter the users’ moods, labeling the changes an “emotional
contagion” that moved through the population (users) much like a virus.
The outrage from the social media public arose from the fact Facebook
did not inform the users they were part of an experiment. Before anyone
writes off the complaints as coming from a small segment, understand
just how huge the 10-year-old company has become in its meteoric rise.
In December of last year, 757 million users logged onto Facebook every
day and more than 1.23 billion - yes, billion - people were active
monthly users. If Facebook was a country, it would be the second largest
by population in the world with only China containing more people.
making a bunch of Facebook users mad is a big deal. And they had every
right to be upset. When the research was conducted in early 2012, the
study came only two months after the company had its fingers smacked
with a ruler by the Federal Trade Commission for using “unfair and
would not add a line about research into the policy until four months
after the study was completed.
Quite frankly, we are not that
upset about the research project itself, although we believe the
participants should have been informed. If anybody believes the
attempted manipulation of feelings is not occurring on a daily basis
already, they are trying to fool themselves. The advertising industry is
built around the alteration of buying habits of consumers, as an
Our problem is with the success of the study and the
dangerous implications down the road. For instance, suppose two
candidates are running for political office. Candidate A is for
government-supplied widgets while Candidate B is dead set against them.
They campaign with speech after speech, each giving their side of the
argument until any voter even remotely paying attention know the stances
of A (pro) and B (con) on widgets.
Now suppose in the final two
months leading up to the election, Candidate A or a political action
committee pays Facebook millions of dollars to manipulate Facebook feeds
so only positive stories about widgets appear. Every day hundreds of
millions of people are bombarded about the benefits of widgets in every
home. This research study just proved that over time, users’ emotions
will change and they will see widgets in a more favorable light.
that is where the danger lies. The stories never mention Candidate A or
the election which means there does not need to be any disclaimer as
required by election law. Yet, the election could be swung by the
manipulation of the Facebook users.
Want something even more
sinister? Suppose the national economy stinks. Unemployment is high,
inflation is on the rise, and the government debt is breaking records.
Yet, every day on their social media feeds, hundred of millions of
people are being told everything is getting better. The population is
really not doing without, no matter what they think they remember from a
few years earlier. We acknowledge this is a huge leap into Orwellian
territory but the study shows if the theme of “everything is okay” is
repeated enough times to enough people - like on the largest social
media site in the world - then attitudes will change no matter what the
truth of the situation.
To us, the fact the manipulation works is the most frightening revelation of all.
headline of this editorial refers to a line from George Orwell’s
classic dystopian novel, “1984”: “The ideal set up by the Party was
something huge, terrible, and glittering—a world of steel and concrete,
of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and
fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same
thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting,
triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same