A trusting face: Facebook’s alleged news feed manipulations

By Jason Free, Executive Editor

How would you feel if you discovered that a company manipulated your emotions without your consent for a marketing experiment? What if they fed you news items hoping to elicit your responses so that they may later be used by outside vendors to steer you towards certain products and services? Sounds a bit like a bad conspiracy movie, but for over a half a million Facebook users, this is a reality.

Last week, Facebook revealed that it had manipulated the news feeds of randomly selected users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw. It was part of an internal project at Facebook to examine how emotions can be generated and spread on social media. Many feel that such manipulation is unethical and presents a slippery slope in terms of online privacy issues, while others shrug and state that this practice is just business as usual on the Internet.

I spoke with Karl Volkman, the Chief Technology Officer of SRV Network, Inc. in Chicago, to learn more about this trend in social media and if we should revisit our assumptions about how we interact with online companies.

Jason Free: It’s alleged that Facebook created, in essence, a blind marketing study. They picked about 700,000 of their users and showed them particularly different types of newsfeeds to see how they would react or quote or mention the pieces to their friends.

While it has not been confirmed, many say the only reason that Facebook would do something like this is to generate information for some sort of vendor partner that is paying for the data. Skeptics are also now looking at the potential for the new Facebook app being able to pick up your personal device’s microphone which could, of course, record a user’s voice. This “Big Brother” behavior might be pseudo well-intentioned, but it has immense ramifications on personal privacy issues.

Karl VolkmanKarl Volkman: I agree with your assessment and I think what brought us to where we are today is the fact that we are a commercializing society.

Facebook needs to maintain and create income. Some good ways for them to maintain and create income is to have their customers give them as much information as possible. I don’t use the term “users” because I see participants on Facebook as customers and I promise you, Facebook does the same thing.

Many people today practically live on social media sites. By doing so, they easily create and share valuable information with countless vendors whether they realize it’s happening or not. These vendors can clearly see who goes where, what product is most popular and what news stories gain the most traction within a particular group. But not only can they collect information as a vendor but they can also create new information by showing customers certain items and recording their spontaneous reactions. Many people find this practice unsettling and a bit nefarious, but like it or not, it’s happening all the time.

Free: In this particular instance, Facebook is alleged to have manipulated news streams. The idea is to first gather your reaction to the fed items and then to use your reaction to steer you in a specific direction.

Volkman: Yes. Say you wanted to know about sports or even a particular area of the world and all Facebook feeds you is bad information, by that I mean, they feed you downer stories that are not uplifting or positive. How might that impact your comments and searches? For example, if you are interested in learning more about the Middle East and all you get is how they are training terrorists and ruining the environment with their oil production, you may start writing negative comments and seeking more overtly negative items versus what you might comment or seek when given a balanced news feed.

In my opinion, creating reaction is a little bit different then having a reaction. Also, the manipulation of news is scary business especially when you look back at when the practice occurred elsewhere in history. I want good information, regardless of its tone, so that I can learn something. I don’t want it to be manipulated in such a way just to get a reaction out of me. I don’t want to be left with the wrong impression about an event or issue in the world just because a company wants to treat me like a guinea pig.

Free: To play devil’s advocate, I can say Facebook is using information that is created within their own platform. No one has to enter it against their will and no one has to post a response to what they see. It’s not really any different from certain tactics that are used in physical retail environments such as reverse secret-shopper scenarios where store owners dress their showrooms to see how customers will react. They stage different types of phony promotional events to see how customers react then they use the information they gather to later launch the real event in a more effective fashion. Do you see where I am coming from?

Volkman: Yes, I do and I see Facebook’s position as well.

Facebook has a service that people are using and it is equivalent to a physical business structure. Like you said, if I was out at the mall and I had a shop there and I did what you just described, I feel well entitled to do that because I am not invading someone’s home. I am in my own environment and the customers are coming into my place. I can see that mentality of ownership but the problem is that the majority of Facebook customers do not look at it that way. They really envision Facebook as a utility similar to the phone company.

When I make a phone call, I don’t want to have people recording my messages or the voices over the line I use. I would feel violated and venerable if that did occur. That is why there are certain laws and rules and lawsuits out there relative to personal privacy. There are certain places that you should let people know that they are going to be recorded. That is very similar in this aspect. As I said, people view Facebook as a utility and expect it to be a private pathway to interact with people. From that standpoint, the personal freedom standpoint, I would defiantly recommend Facebook educate people to recognize it as a fully-functioning business. They should say, “We are a business and, therefore, these types of things occur on our site. Do you agree to it? If not, you should go elsewhere.” From a simple business and potential marketing information standpoint, you can see the logic to what they are doing by not telling people these things. But, again, I don’t believe most of the clientele that use Facebook understand the situation in these terms.

Free: You mention the idea that the general public sees Facebook as a utility. That’s an issue that has been discussed in the music industry for close to a decade. Consumers seem to have the perception that most digital products should be free. They go online to Facebook and say to themselves, “This is a service for me but I have no skin in the game, per say. I am supposed to be able to use it anyway I see fit even if I am not paying for it.” It seems as though there has been sort of a change in the overall mentality when it comes to going online. The public thinks, “All of this is for me. All of this was built for me and all of this is free.”

Volkman: I agree with you, but there is another side to it.

I hate to be crass, but it is kind of like a drug pusher’s method to get people hooked on his product. Give them a little free sample here and there and get them hooked. Once you are hooked, the pusher can use you in any way that he wants to.

In a nutshell, that is the function of most social media sites right now. Companies aren’t creating these platforms and services for the goodwill of the community. Companies are doing it because they want to draw traffic to a certain place. When they hit the right traffic levels, they can sell advertising space and make money for their business.

Free: So you see this practice has a company baiting and trapping customers for ad dollars.

Volkman: I definitely see it as an unfortunate trap, but I am in the minority. Even though people have grown up technologically and have used technology as part of their life in an everyday fashion, I still don’t think they see something like Facebook as a business environment. Again , if they walked into a store and tried to buy something, they would have one attitude. If they went out to a restaurant to eat, they would have different attitude. They are paying for something and expecting something and they appreciate that there is a business there that is meant to make money. I really don’t think with a social media site like Facebook that people appreciate that it’s a business space.

Free: So do you think Facebook, or not even specifically Facebook but companies with strong social media, play upon these sorts of personality traits within their customer base? Maybe Facebook knows that their consumers feel entitled, and, therefore are easily manipulated and that this mindset is a business advantage as opposed to looking at it as a negative like the music industry always has. As you know, few in the music industry have ever seen the value in an artist getting exposure via a free download that later equates to a paid concert ticket.

It’s possible that there are some companies, like Facebook, out there who are saying, “Hey. Let’s turn this negative into a positive. Let’s get gather these people who feel entitled to free things and then let’s direct them to an area where we can generate our own data that we can use, or sell, however we see fit.” They can gather their own data that would not have present if their customers had felt as though the environment requires some form of payment.

Volkman: I see what you are saying and I think you are right. I know for certain that people have built websites knowing that customers are going to come to the site for free, therefore, they could perhaps get a little bit more honest opinion, or perhaps create a little more captured audience to do whatever they want to do. I would hope that the majority of the public who stumble into this kind of situation are looking at it as a business setting and not a communal environment.

Social media is where a lot of us live today. That is the place for our lives right now and that is a perfect environment for a company to test the water; to see who likes what and what people are truly talking about.

It is unfortunate that our new social meeting place can be used as a lab for business, but it’s similar to back in pilgrim days, if you will, where you had your town meetings every day or so. I am sure there were people there who just listened to see what people were concerned about and they made business decision based upon what they heard. Maybe they learned that everyone in town needed a blacksmith and they opened up a shop. In a way, what Facebook is trying to do is similar to that. It seems a little bit more insidious though because you hear about apps listening to you, apps giving you slanted information to see how you react. Again, gathering information is ok. When someone manipulates the environment, customers become test subjects and I have a problem with that.

Free: Where do things go here if things aren’t checked?

Volkman: Unfortunately, in our society, not very far in terms of protecting the consumer. The best case scenario is that the story of these practices is followed by public outrage. The outrage would be potentially followed by some sort of organizational or governmental regulation at some point. I have to say that I do not see that happening in this case.

Many times, depending upon the level of public outrage, a company could decide to address the practices on their own. From Facebook, I am not sure what that level of public outrage would have to be. Maybe loosing loads of subscribers, I don’t know and I am not sure people are going to merely stop using Facebook. Hopefully, they respond accordingly and either give people notification of what is going on explain maybe a little bit better things aren’t as bad as first reports here is what we actually did whatever. Perhaps when people sign up for Facebook, they have to click a box saying that they agree to receive these types of things or be part of such practices.

Who knows? I don’t have a good feel for which way it is going to fall at this point and, again, it could be people just don’t care. If no one has a public outcry to it, than it is a non event really.

Free: Has there been an outcry? Is anyone else talking about this?

Volkman: I would have to say in my circle of people, there has been discussion, but I am not hearing of a great many non-technical people being put off by this whole deal. I would think, if it was me personally, I would be a little more shocked and outraged.

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