Sunday, January 21, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Facebook meets Big Brother

Apparently we're all just bozos on the Facebook bus.

You might think of the social networking website as the ideal forum to announce to the world that you've just prepared a swell Apple Brown Betty for dessert, or to debut the latest video of your cat tangled up in a ball of yarn (so cute), or to air your thoughts on the latest episode of Orange Is the New Black.

You breathlessly post this gibberish because you think people actually care about the most mundane navel lint that is your life. Nobody cares, including yourself. You are the one who rolls your eyes every time you are exposed to a "friend's" detailed account of their vacation to Pedro's South of the Border.

Megabytes died for this?

Now it seems while many users of Facebook were happily scribbling away about their child's 2.5 kindergarten GPA (finger-painting still needs some work), they became dupes who were the subject of a perverse experiment designed by the website's puppet masters to toy with their emotions.

Facebook announced days ago that it had randomly noodled around in the accounts of nearly 700,000 subscribers to manipulate users' news feeds by changing the number of positive or negative posts they were exposed to, in order to learn how emotions can be spread across social media.

If there is a theme for George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, cue it up.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers (otherwise known as Cyber Peeping Toms) recounted that in January 2012 they changed the news feeds of Facebook users without the users' consent, reflecting either positive or negative content. The Facebook Stasi then surreptitiously monitored the subscribers' writing to note changes in vocabulary to indicate mood swings. Think of this as what would have happened if Glenn Close's Alex Forest character in Fatal Attraction had had a Ph.D.

Aside from the fact the study violated a litany of privacy standards, academic integrity protocols and laws in 48 states, Facebook's geeks scored an 11 on the Sleaze-O-Meter.

Of course, the issue of informed consent is somewhat problematic.

To be sure, the 689,003 Facebookers who had their accounts hacked had no idea they were being used as keyboard lab rats by a bunch of pocket-protector nerds with all the intellectual honesty of Irwin Mainway peddling a Bag-O-Glass.

In theory, Mark Zuckerberg's 689,003 cyber guinea pigs did opt to be treated like lemmings when they the signed up for Facebook. It's right there, somewhere, someplace in the dense 4,000-word agreement users accept upon becoming a Facebook tool.

This hardly comes as a surprise, but barely anyone actually bothers to read the participation agreement since they are in such a hurry to begin violating their own privacy as soon as possible as the newest Facebook self-reporting gossip.

Still, it is one thing if Facebook users wish to voluntarily spill the beans on the mundane aspects of their lives to a gaggle of so-called "friends" they have never heard of and might not even want to know in real life.

It is quite another for Facebook's inner sanctum of clipboard computer snoops to manipulate the site's content to determine if they can affect the emotions of its users.

While all cyber services apply algorithms to monitor consumer behavior, Facebook's foray into manipulating data merely to determine if it could influence the emotional state of its users seems to have been conducted simply because it had the technical means at its disposal to do what it wanted. That's not science. It's not ethical scholarly research. It's cruel voyeurism. Creepy, too.

There is one way to avoid being turned into a cyber petri dish experiment for the dining and dancing pleasure of Facebook's answer to Dr. No.

Full disclosure: I have a Facebook page. Full disclosure II: I didn't bother to read the participation agreement that makes Remembrance of Things Past read like a fortune cookie. Full disclosure III: Although I have a Facebook page, I never use it and I never write anything on it.

I have all the friends I need. All six of them, more or less.

When I need to contact one of them, I pick up the phone. If I'm in the mood.

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