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The Facebook Manipulators

How Facebook became a glorified version of a McDonald's ball pit.

Image: Larry D Moore, Wikimedia

Facebook manipulated our emotions without our ever consenting to its manipulations, which is about as creepy as the ubiquity of Upworthy posts in our news feeds, which may or may not have been ‘boosted’ into that position by Facebook for a fee. 

Zuck’s data scientists made a couple hundred thousand users feel minutely sadder by removing positive posts from their feeds, and given the placement of the decimal point that quantifies their results, the emotional impact is approximately equivalent to how most Americans feel when their local Major League Soccer team loses a preseason game. 

I’m not sure if the reaction to this development, which bounced around the think post-spawning corners of the internet for a few days and warranted a few segments on cable TV, qualifies as ‘outrage’, because nothing much actually happened except people posted some of those criticisms on Facebook.

And some of those criticisms were posted a lot—the AV Club’s post, which was the lucky winner of this particular online aggregation sweepstakes, won tens of thousands of Facebook shares (it is possible that the outlet’s social media managers purchased some extra likes, too, to expand its reach and keep that viral momentum going), likely causing the New Scientist staff, whose article was the ultimate source for the blog post, to feel a good deal more upset than if Facebook had experimented on them. (At Motherboard, we were even sadder; our article came out ten days before New Scientist's.)

None of this suggests that any unease generated by the enterprise is unwarranted. It’s a perfect opportunity to be reminded how aggravatingly muddy the Facebook sandbox has become; we’re the oblivious, knee-dirtied denizens aimlessly playing and toiling in a space filled with ephemeral content, where there are all sorts of weird things we never even bother to acknowledge buried just below the surface.  

Maybe a McDonald’s playground is a better analogy; Facebook only really exists as a destination in the first place to lure us in, to manipulate us into buying more stuff at the window right next door. And the managers are of course free to change the color and number of balls in the ball pit, and the signage around it, to see if it will improve kids’ moods enough to make them want more French fries. Now, obviously, there aren’t really any heroin-laced needles in those ball pits, that’s just a scare-mongering urban legend. But there could be enough invisible bacteria lurking in there to make us all sick

Personally, my Facebook feed is a toxic cesspool. It’s overflowing with poorly designed ads and promoted content and suggestions that I buy an erstwhile middle school acquaintance a Starbucks Gift Card for her birthday and the occasional useful update about my friends’ pet acquisitions. The whole thing reads a bit like an alumni newsletter mail-merged with the coupon section from the Sunday paper.

Facebook, trying to sell me 'techie' stuff.

Because I edit a website that relies on Facebook to help promote its articles—yes, like many other organizations, we have occasionally spent money to get Facebook to manipulate you into reading our stories, and some of them may have made you momentarily sad (sorry)—I do spend a fair amount of time on the world’s most popular social networking site. So I’m maybe a bit more aware than average not just of how surreptitiously crass the ecosystem has grown, but of how useful it is, too.

Facebook is undeniably a utility—even its supporters, who want it kept free from any kind of oversight, say so. It is the medium Americans now overwhelmingly use to keep in touch, organize social gatherings, wish each other happy birthday, and even read the news. We do all this, despite it being a fairly crappy place, because it has become so thoroughly normalized; Facebook has become a public expectation. Facebook is slowly but surely integrating itself further down Maslow's hierarchy of needs 2.0.

But this utility, a common space where a vast swath of the world gathers to conduct important daily social functions, isn't a public square or a vibrant piazza. It is a drab and overlit and highly surveilled mall where what goes on behind the storefronts is almost entirely obscured from view. Users are largely unaware they've signed away their data to advertisers, that political campaigns and brands and media outlets are buying up space on their news feed, that the company is sharing its data with the NSA (the agency has manipulated Facebook into sharing the data it has manipulated us into giving it), and that Facebook scientists can twiddle the knobs to explicitly try to alter their emotions. All this gives Facebook an almost unprecedented amount of power to manipulate all those teenagers and hurried shoppers.

The mall analogy hails from a 2010 piece by the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, which described the corporatization of the digital commons. After the Facebook study started drawing attention, she reprised some elements of the argument in a new piece that encouraged readers to not take the news idly. "[L]arge corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams," Tufekci writes. "It’s exactly the time to speak up!"

But it is difficult to get angry at a mall. They're just so anodyne, they have a few things you want, and they possess the inexplicable power to sap you of your will to feel anything but mild irritation. 

Anyway, what to demand if we do stand up from our desk chairs to, presumably, tweet out or post on Facebook our objections to being manipulated by Facebook, is a little complicated. Since the social network is a utility, some argue it should be regulated like one—that laws be enacted to demand more transparent and simpler privacy agreements, laws that prevent company researchers from mining your data unwittingly, that limit certain kinds of targeted advertising, and so forth. Obviously, Silicon Valley would rather unlike such an unwelcome disruption.

Or maybe we need a nonprofit alternative, though the likes of Wikipedia has its own share of issues with behind-the-scenes corporate subterfuge. Competitors with noble intent and better policies have risen up only to wilt under the brunt of the Facebook's unthinkable pervasiveness. Major social networks have fallen, of course, and free marketeers argue that if Facebook becomes too onerous or too saturated with ads, it will succumb to competition.

I'm not so sure. Facebook is a brand-addled info dump right now, yet we keep on clicking. It's worse than the digital corporate megastructures dreamed up by cyberpunk—at least the metaverse wasn't boring. Those authors never imagined the manipulations would be so pastel-colored and straightforward and dull.

So, as we're wandering through the cluttered space, trying to ignore the limited offers and optimized headlines, and dreading that moment when the ad-filled sidebar aligns with the sponsored content placed directly into our feeds—an advertorial eclipse—let's at least acknowledge the state of things. We are scrolling through a vast recursion of minute, profit-seeking manipulations—and the web they end up creating is a pretty nauseating place to hang out with your friends.