michael gurstein on Wed, 9 Jul 2014 14:41:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Facebook Does Mind Control

With links and comments:

Facebook Does Mind Control

Michael Gurstein

News is coming out about Facebook initiated and largely conducted social
research experiment examining the effects of various types of emotionally
loaded messages on the "mood" of selected Facebook (FB) users. The details
of the study are now becoming widely known and it is clear that the actual
study was the result of a combination of naivety and hubris on the part of
FB staff who didn't realize that there might be a very strong negative
reaction to this kind of activity.

The actual experiment (and results) are quite interesting from a social
research perspective and the undertaking of this kind of research is fairly
unproblematic (or apparently at least not illegal according to FB terms of
use) although it is unlikely that most universities would have allowed it to
pass an internal ethical review (on the basis of a lack of "informed
consent"). The findings do in fact show a limited but statistically
significant positive impact from positive messages towards a "positive" mood
among the selected experimental subjects.

There is a substantial buzz in the academic community and its surrounds
about the use of such experimental subjects without formal authorization,
conventionally a major no-no for academic research. There is also some
additional buzz concerning the fact that FB is intervening in this kind of
way with its "timeline" or main information feed/flow (the `creepiness`
factor), although information about this has been widely known to anyone who
is interested for some time.

I think however, that we should be celebrating this research and
particularly those who chose to publish it.  This publication, like Snowden
(if inadvertently), gives us a clear window into the reality of what another
of the major pillars of the Interneted Society is doing/capable of doing.
Without this publication we otherwise might not have been so acutely aware
of what is so evidently possible/likely. 

By publishing the study the FB folks shone a searchlight on the highly
significant capacity of FB to intervene, manage and ultimately manipulate
the information flow through FB and thus either directly or indirectly
intervene into, manage and manipulate the range of activities which are
built on the FB platform and equally impact and manipulate/direct the
"stream of digital consciousness" which FB represents and which appears to
be so highly influential for so many people.

We have learned several things from this, most of which we already knew but
didn`t really want to know that:
1. FB messaging operates both at the formal informational level and more
deeply at the mood (subliminal?) level. Those who are immersed in the
continuous flow/feed of FB postings are open to some degree of
management/manipulation/control by those who control that flow and this is
over and above the specifics/details of the content of the flow
2. FB is (not surprisingly) quite aware of these possible, even likely
effects and has an active interest in using these in support of its business
3. FB sees no barriers to its use of its algorithms in this way either
ethical or regulatory and its concern at least to date appears to be with
its with having `upset` its customers/users and not with dealing with the
matter that caused the upset.

The issue here of course, is not one fairly limited social research project
conducted by what appears to be a fairly clueless (and likely) junior
researcher but rather what this demonstrates concerning the potential deep
and pervasive power and influence of a/the major Internet corporations. The
issue is thus not the fairly minor incursion against research ethics that
Facebook has been caught doing, but rather what it tells us about what
Facebook could and very likely is doing on a day-to-day basis-managing and
manipulating information flows, giving priority to some messages and
messengers and rendering others more or less invisible; and all behind a
more or less invisible cloak with the suggestion that all is `free` and
`open` and one is able to be in more or less direct and unimpeded contact
with one`s `friends`.

Facebook currently claims some 1.250 billion users worldwide. It is widely
understood as being a basic framework for a whole range of social,
political, advocacy and even economic interactions. Through its purchase and
redistribution of bandwidth in Less Developed Countries it is seen by many
in those countries as the Internet itself since being a free service it
effectively crowds out other non-free services and opportunities for
web/Internet access and use.

Thus any capacity to manipulate the flow of information/postings through
Facebook could have quite severe consequences in a number of areas not least
of which are the variety of roles that FB plays in various political
activities throughout the world with the events in the Arab Spring being
only the most widely noted.

But all of this has been known for some time and widely discussed. What is
new in the current information/discussion is the possible role of FB in
influencing and potentially even controlling the thinking/cognition of at
least some and perhaps many through its manipulation of its feed. We know
quite a lot about the relationship between popular mood and electoral
behaviour and it might be anticipated that there are similar relationships
between mood and other forms of behaviours and things like decision-making,
action taking, responding to other kinds of messages and stimuli and so on.

And further:

"Of course, the cultural industry and mass media are not the only places
where the manipulation of the unconscious may actively be contemplated. The
formidable challenge that confronts the cultural critic is the scenario
where the battlefront of ideology has shifted predominantly from the control
of political consciousness to the technological manipulation of the
ineffable unconscious, the latter by no means being limited to the use and
abuse of mind-altering drugs manufactured by big biochemical companies,
which critics have amply documented and analyzed. In this regard, the
insights of the Frankfurt School critics prove instructive in helping us
rethink the conditions of critical imperative, and they are instructive
precisely by virtue of their rigorous critique of technocracy and
instrumental reason and their failure to engage with information theory and
cybernetics in their time. This failure can be crippling because, if the
unconscious rather than the consciousness has turned into the primary field
of ideological manipulation by the dominant class, what is the future of
reason and reasoned critiques?"
[Lydia H. Liu, "The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the
Unconscious," Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010, p.35] Quoted by Mark Stahlman in
a post to the Nettimes e-list 6/30/14.

The major Internet corporations such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and eBay
have wealth, global reach, technical skill, effective monopoly positions,
extremely wide ranges active use, and a more or less complete lack of
regulation/means to ensure some conformance with the public good however it
might be defined. This is something that has not been seen before although
there are some comparisons with the role of the (railway and energy) trusts
in the pre-WWI period.

These companies appear to have far outreached the capacity of any single
government to regulate their behaviour or their influence/power including
over public policy analysis, discussion and decision making.

This above has to be seen as apiece with the capacity of Google's control
over its search algorithm to control and manipulate the access to the range
of human knowledge, and what we know from Snowden concerning the capacity of
the NSA (and presumably other spy agencies) for pervasive surveillance,
particularized individual information to a very high degree of granularity
and ultimately the capacity to intervene into the range of software and
hardware instrumentality on which virtually all of the transactions and
interactions of daily life have come to find their platform.

The putting into place of this overt and implicit framework of digital data,
information, and knowledge;  along with conceptual, subliminal management,
intervention, intrusion and control represents a highly significant
potential assault against individual and collective freedoms-all of course,
while on the surface maintaining the `Internet Freedom` orthodoxy of
`freedom of expression`, `freedom of speech`, `freedom of association`.  In
this universe the Internet functions as a `neutron bomb`-destroying the
implicit capacity for independence of thought and of action while on the
surface maintaining a bland exterior of openness and `freedom`.

Many of course, are arguing that such actions of manipulation are the very
nature of advertising and even marketing and that even the use of subliminal
messages has a long history. However, what is new in this context is the
capacity to intervene, mediate and even direct the entire overt and implicit
environment for whatever activity or group or individual stream which may be
of interest.  In such an environment the degree of involvement or
significance of FB in the activity etc. is the degree to which the
possibility for external manipulation and even control is available.

Equally of course, as a medium for social connectivity and discourse the
role of FB as an intermediary/filter has been relatively little examined.
Much is made and continuously of the role of social media in general in
enabling various kinds of social interactions but little attention is paid
overall to how that medium itself acts as a filter and thus as a potential
direct, but effectively invisible, intervenor in those interactions.

But now, with the veil having been lifted for a moment where can/do we go
with this knowledge? Clearly existing instrumentalities are unable (or
unwilling) to intervene in this context-either because they don't have
sufficient jurisdiction, they are unaware of the significance, or because
they are ideologically and economically aligned with the interests of those
doing the interventions. 

Only through some type of concerted, coordinated action across national
lines and towards the development of appropriate transnational governance
and regulatory mechanisms will there be the possibility of ensuring that the
"Facebook Generation" is not something rather more ominous and significant
than simply a fanciful advertising slogan. How to do this while maintaining
the evident openness, spontaneity, and capacity for enabling peer to peer
connections, and the entire range of non-corporate mediated activities and
enablements is of course, the challenge, but to shirk from this is to give
over the opportunity to direct the future to a very small cluster of elite
corporate and governmental players. 

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