Jul 26th 2014

The Facebook Furor

by Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson, CEO of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, health care, private aviation, and space travel.

AMSTERDAM – There has been a lot of fuss lately about the psychological experiment that Facebook conducted on nearly 700,000 of its users. In order to gauge how people’s Facebook “News Feeds” affect their moods, the company temporarily implemented a new algorithm to display slightly more positive messages to some users, and slightly gloomier ones to others. As it turns out, people’s posts shifted to reflect the tone of their friends’ posts.

But the furor missed some of the most interesting questions, focusing (as usual) on Facebook’s tone-deafness (as usual). Nobody seemed interested in the obvious question of whether the findings reflected a genuine shift in mood, or simply a desire – conscious or unconscious – to fit in.

What has people outraged is the notion that Facebook is manipulating its unwitting users to advance its own agenda, with many citing the secrecy surrounding the research to illustrate the company’s misconduct (though the company published the results with no apparent sense of unease). But, though Facebook’s lack of transparency is certainly disconcerting – as is its deafness to its users’ concerns – these complaints miss the point.

Of course Facebook is manipulating its users – just like all companies that use advertising to induce consumers to crave a double cheeseburger, a sexy dress, or a sexy partner. Whether it is done through targeted advertisements based on a search history or billboards on a public highway, the (intended) result is the same.

A century ago, this might have been big news. Today, it is mundane. Yet people continue to react to explicit revelations of such manipulation with shock and outrage.

The bigger problem is the modern paradox of choice. Today, people are constantly presented with choices – and also with the option to avoid them, under the guise of speed or convenience. 

While the power to make one’s own choices is appealing in theory, the sheer number of options can be exhausting and disorienting – not least because of the pressure to make the “right” choice. As Barry Schwartz has pointed out, choices are an opportunity for regret. When forces beyond our control make us unhappy, at least we do not feel angry with ourselves for putting ourselves in that position.

The logical response to this pressure is to delegate some decisions to others. But, when reminded of how others are shaping our lives, we become indignant, calling it “creepy” and a violation of our free will. Users let Google filter the deluge of emails they receive daily, but they are incensed when Google weeds out an important message.

Likewise, when Facebook responds to complaints that users cannot keep track of all of their friends’ posts, it develops an algorithm to show users only the most relevant. But what qualifies a post as “relevant”? Twitter is now trying to solve the same problem.

Some have said that the choices that Facebook makes for its users could endanger its users’ mental health. But so can an overworked high-school teacher who cannot dedicate the needed energy to troubled students; magazines that promote unrealistic body images; sermons from clergy who believe that God does not forgive everyone; or even a stranger acting rudely on a train. All of these actors have their own ideas and motivations, and they are all manipulating our perspectives – and our moods – every day.

Of course, with advertising, the manipulation is particularly overt. But marketers also regularly test users’ emotional reactions to less explicit aspects of their products, from the color of their packaging or their placement in the store to their celebrity spokesperson. And they lure consumers into paying more by offering an over-priced option that makes anything less expensive seem reasonable.

Reading about Kim Kardashian’s new dress may make you want to buy the dress, but does it also make you feel ugly? If you’re a tech entrepreneur, you may aspire to be Marc Andreessen, but reading about him may also make you feel inadequate – especially if you are female.

Facebook inadvertently raised this issue of emotional manipulation and unintended consequences indirectly and in one context, by being secretive about its research and not giving people the chance to opt out beforehand. (Now, that would have been a smart choice!)

But, in the end, there is no problem to be solved – or even an issue that concerns Facebook in particular. What we are seeing is a fundamental improvement in our ability to discover the short-term and long-term impact of our actions and those of others. (Global warming, anyone?) As our ability to measure things and detect the impact of any change improves – in short, as we get better at empirical research – we need to consider what kind of responsibility is entailed by the knowledge that we gain.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."
Jun 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should be apparent to most observers of international relations that the Chinese government wants the world to play by its own set of rules. Beijing appears to believe that China’s rise and its assumption of global leadership positions are an inevitable extension of earlier periods in its history, when it was the world’s most powerful country. This is often at odds with the global norms that have been established – with China’s participation, it is worth adding – since the 1940s. While this is clearly the Chinese century, few outside of China would agree that Beijing’s global leadership is either inevitable or necessarily desired – certainly not on the Chinese government’s terms."
Jun 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Many Americans are clearly horrified by their president’s crass and incendiary words. But will their disapproval be offset by anxiety about violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?  Much will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think rationally in November, it is hard to imagine that enough of them would vote to keep this appalling administration in power for another four years. But fear is reason’s worst enemy."
Jun 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "For starters, many Americans have accepted that they live in a winner-takes-all society of deepening inequality. While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford health care, childcare, and other basic goods. This story has been told many times over. But what often goes unremarked is that the responsibility for managing the social costs of this system has been offloaded onto the police."
May 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Obamagate is the latest conspiracy theory to be pushed by US president, Donald Trump. It started on the morning of May 10, when Trump retweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!” By the next day, the Obamagate hashtag had accrued over two million tweets and another four million by the end of the week. Trump has repeatedly reused the slogan on his Twitter feed since and it has been promoted by right-wing influencers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many others....You are not alone if you’re confused by what Obamagate actually is or why Trump is tweeting about it."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, in order to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner.  More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against US Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus-mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post."
Apr 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "These ten risks, already looming large before COVID-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimize many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression."
Apr 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Federal Reserve will buy unlimited quantities of Treasury bonds, the Bank of England will purchase £200 billion ($250 billion) of gilts, and the European Central Bank up to €750 billion ($815 billion) of eurozone bonds. Almost certainly, central banks will end up providing monetary finance to fund fiscal deficits. The only question is whether they should make that explicit."