Thursday, July 03, 2014

Facebook's psychological experiments and influencing elections

Perhaps you heard?  About that Facebook mind control thingie?  If it was clever satire, it would be a great Hollywood script.  Except it's not.

Facebook’s disclosure last week that it had tinkered with about 700,000 users’ news feeds as part of a psychology experiment conducted in 2012 inadvertently laid bare what too few tech firms acknowledge: that they possess vast powers to closely monitor, test and even shape our behavior, often while we’re in the dark about their capabilities.

The publication of the study, which found that showing people slightly happier messages in their feeds caused them to post happier updates, and sadder messages prompted sadder updates, ignited a torrent of outrage from people who found it creepy that Facebook would play with unsuspecting users’ emotions. Because the study was conducted in partnership with academic researchers, it also appeared to violate long-held rules protecting people from becoming test subjects without providing informed consent. Several European privacy agencies have begun examining whether the study violated local privacy laws.

It's cool, though.  The NYT tech blogger says there's nothing to worry about and that we should welcome our new overlords.  Except for this part.

In another experiment, Facebook randomly divided 61 million American users into three camps on Election Day in 2010, and showed each group a different, nonpartisan get-out-the-vote message (or no message). The results showed that certain messages significantly increased the tendency of people to vote — not just of people who used Facebook, but even their friends who didn’t.

Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, points out that many of these studies serve to highlight Facebook’s awesome power over our lives.

“I read that and I said, ‘Wait, Facebook controls elections,’ ” she said. “If they can nudge all of us to vote, they could nudge some of us individually, and we know they can model whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat — and elections are decided by a couple of hundred thousand voters in a handful of states. So the kind of nudging power they have is real power.”

Okay then.  I feel calmer already.

How much do you think Facebook might charge... say, a well-heeled politico like Greg Abbott to "promote posts" that could swing an election his way?  A few million bucks?  More than that?

Would it be money better spent than advertising on Fox News?  I would have to think so, since that's a captive (and already well-manipulated) audience.  Not much fresh ore to be mined there.

Sort of gives pause to the traditional 'grassroots organizing' effort, doesn't it?

Oh well, I'll think about that after I level up in Candy Crush.  After all, my desire to be well-informed is currently being overwhelmed by my desire to remain sane.

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