May 20, 2019

Facebook, please manipulate me

What do you call it when media try to manipulate your feelings without first asking for informed consent?


Example:  The average Facebook user sees only 20 percent of the 1,500 stories per day that could have shown up in their news feed.  The posts you receive are determined by algorithms whose bottom line is Facebook’s bottom line.  The company is constantly adjusting all kinds of dials, quietly looking for the optimal mix to make us spend more of our time and money on Facebook.  Of course the more we’re on Facebook, the more information they have about us to fine-tune their formulas for picking ads to show us.  That’s their business model: We create and give Facebook, for free, the content they use and the data they mine to hold our attention, which Facebook in turn sells to advertisers. 

Those are the terms of service that everyone, without reading, clicks “I Agree to” – and not just for Facebook. We make comparable mindless contracts all the time with Gmail, Yahoo, Twitter, Amazon, Siri, Yelp, Pandora and tons of other apps, retailers and advertiser-supported news and entertainment.  If you’re online, if you use a smartphone, you’re an experimental subject in proprietary research studies of how best to target, engage and monetize you.  They’re always testing content, design, headlines, graphics, prices, promotions, profiling tools, you name it, and you’ve opted in whether you realize it or not.    

Many of these experiments hinge on our feelings, because much of what makes us come, stay, buy, like, share, comment and come back is emotional, not rational.  So it should surprise no one that Facebook wants to know what makes its users happier.  But when they acknowledged last month that they had tested – on 700,000 people, for one week – whether increasing the fraction of upbeat posts in their news feeds made them feel more upbeat (it did), a ” target=”_blank”>the name of his book – in 1984, before the Web was spun. But that didn’t stop  entertainment, which is exquisitely attuned to the marketplace, from making its long march through our institutions.  Today, politics is all about unaccountable corporations manipulating our emotions; they're constantly testing and targeting their paid messages to voters, none of whom are asked for informed consent.  The news industry is all about the audience, and much of its content has long been driven by the primal power of danger, sex and novelty to trap our attention, but there's no clamor for shows and sites to warn us we're lab chimps.  

John Kenneth Galbraith called advertising ““>Neuroscience now shows what happens: Our emotions are faster than our reason, which we then use to reverse engineer some rationalization for our actions.

Is there any way to protect people from the “>banishment is an authoritarian solution.  More speech, not less, is the democratic answer to assaults on freedom and agency.  Open-source “>Media Impact Project.) And the place where countervailing speech really wants to get heard is in the media, whose industrial success, like Facebook’s, depends on monetizing our attention.  I’ve seen a lot of stories about Facebook fiddling with the happiness of our feeds.  The irony is that I encountered all of them on media whose owners are just as determined to push my buttons as Mark Zuckerberg.

Marty Kaplan is holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at