Have you just been an unknowing subject in a massive psychological experiment run by Facebook on mass mood-control? Facebook is feeling the heat after revealing that it enrolled 689,003 Facebook users into a covert psychological experiment using ‘emotional contagion ‘ to control people’s mood by manipulating what they see in their news feed (download full study here).

The idea of emotional contagion is simple – moods are ‘catching’, infectious just like colds, laughter, and yawning.  By manipulating which emotionally-charged posts you see on Facebook, Facebook could theoretically manipulate your mood.  The study, edited by psychologist Susan T. Fiske, an eminent expert in social cognition (how our thinking is are influenced and patterned by social stimuli – like other people’s emotional states), found that this theoretical influence – was in fact real.  Facebook can manipulate – to a small degree – your personal mood (measured by the mood of your posts) by manipulating the mood of the posts you see in your newsfeed.

Of course, there are a bunch of methodological caveats/issues to the study (importantly, the accuracy (or rather potential lack of it) of the computer algorithm that decides the mood of the post) and the vanishingly small size of the influence. But the results are consistent with decades of mass media effects research (and surely Facebook counts as mass media today), that show a small but persistent influence of mass media on mood and behaviour (my own research looked at the role of the media in copycat violence and deliberate self-harm). It’s also a central premise in ‘memetics’ – that media channels such as Facebook are vectors for memetic mind viruses.

But what seems to have caught the media’s interest with the study is the covert nature of Facebook’s psychological experiment.  Surely people have a right to known when they are being experimented upon?  Well, perhaps – but the moral outrage is a little disingenuous from media companies that systematically use A/B testing to optimise their ads – or indeed simply use Google analytics.  Every A/B test is effectively a psychological experiment, where subjects are placed into experimental groups – without their knowledge or consent – and exposed to one of two versions of an ad, and their reactions are measured – in order to optimise the ad.  The Facebook mood-control experiment was simply an A/B test using user posts as variables.

The old truism that if you are not paying for the product, you are the product – is all the more true for free online services that make money from your data and ads.

We are all ‘products’ – unpaid psychological subjects – in a massive ongoing experiment on mass mind control and behaviour control.  If Facebook can’t manipulate what we think, feel, say, do or buy, or who we vote for, then it has no business model.

This is not necessarily a bad – or good – thing, but to believe anything else is simply naive.

 

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