By: Laura Owsiany
The infamous Terms and Conditions we agree to before downloading almost any software or logging into any site—but almost never read—have long been the butt of jokes. But since the exposure of Facebook’s controversial mood study, we may be singing a different tune.
The Atlantic revealed last week that a 2012 study orchestrated by Facebook manipulated the newsfeeds of over 689,000 users to measure “emotional contagion.” More positive posts shown on newsfeeds resulted in happier user posts, while more negative information resulted in more negative posts.
The study was legal, given the Terms of Service all Facebook users must accept upon joining the site, but has come under serious fire for ethical reasons. Though Facebook technically obtained consent from all users, the study lacked what is termed “informed consent,” as the hundreds of thousands actually tested had no knowledge of their participation. The method of data collection was not reviewed by an independent research review board, only by Facebook’s internal review process.
News and media sites that rely on Facebook for reach and sharing power were angered that the company could pick and choose which posts were seen, affecting not only their readership, but also freedom of information.
Jay Rosen, NYU professor and media expert, said it most succinctly in his Thursday interview with The Atlantic: “Facebook has all the power. You have almost none.”
In a world where over one billion people use Facebook, the user seems to have almost no choice. To have a Facebook account, to be included in the largest social media site worldwide, is to agree to the company’s terms, with no negotiation. The expansion of Facebook’s power from tailoring advertisements and newsfeeds to purposeful manipulation of information has caught many users off-guard.
Since its popularization, social media has come under fire for many things – diminishing personal privacy, limiting human interaction and encouraging narcissism, to name a few. The 2013 documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply sparked some discussion of the oft-overlooked power users give away online, but this latest incident seems more alarming, and reminds users that social media is, in fact, a business. It leads users to question our relationship with social media, and realize that far from a user-generated utopia, the most populous corners of the internet are wildly unequal.
Users cannot choose what they see or who sees their posts. Unlike discussions of privacy that Facebook has addressed in recent years, that is unlikely to change. Adam Kramer, the study’s in-house researcher said following the breaking of the scandal, “The goal of all of our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service.” Facebook does not seek to provide a free online platform for its users, but a tailored experience that, it has now proven, can influence what users themselves post.
Not only are individual users left powerless in this scenario, but also any page, group, or event. There is no guarantee of equality for those seeking publicity using Facebook’s reach. Fear of uncertain visibility drives users to pay to “promote” their posts and pages, a feature still absent in other popular sites such as Twitter and Tumblr. Facebook is selling back the attention of fellow users, something that ought to concern buyers and those being commoditized, i.e. everyone else.
The most troublesome aspect of the relationship is the lack of knowledge on the part of users. We don’t know what information we are missing. We don’t know who is seeing our posts or our likes. We don’t know if our newsfeeds are being manipulated to gloss over important events or perspectives, or if they are influencing our emotions. We only know that they can be.
But users are not leaving Facebook in droves. And social media is not fading soon. Our best hope is to diversify sources of information, and remember, as Jay Rosen told The Atlantic, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”