After psych study, Facebook's mood shows disconnect

Commentary: Even the journal that published the results of Facebook's manipulation of news feeds has expressed concern. But Facebook seems to be saying "Come on, stop complaining."

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Not everyone can laugh off Facebook's psych study. Harvard University/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

By now, you'll have been rigorously checking your moods every day and comparing them to the content of your Facebook News Feed.

You'll have been purchasing the most sophisticated wearable tech you can find, so that it can help you monitor the every beat of your pulse and, hopefully, mental rhythms.

Once it emerged that Facebook had messed with 689.003 news feeds to see how that would play with the moods and minds of Facebook users, a certain amount of human discomfort was expressed.

And earlier this week, even the journal that published the results -- the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- expressed its misgivings.

As the Guardian reports, the journal admitted that Facebook doesn't have to adhere to scientific principles. It's merely a private company. Moreover, it's a private company to which billions of people have freely -- and for free -- given their private information.

However, the PNAS' editor in chief, Inder Verma, said: "It is nevertheless a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out."

Oh, but tech companies have never been keen on anyone opting out. This concept would allow people to have free will, as opposed to being sitting ducks for whatever purpose the likes of Facebook and Google might have in mind.

In their own expressions of concern, Facebook has seemed not to understand that the revelation of its research methods is a revelation of how the company thinks about its users.

"We never meant to upset you," uttered by COO Sheryl Sandberg, seems a curiously inadequate reaction to the news that Facebook believes there is nothing fundamentally wrong with mind-messing for unexplained purposes and entirely in secret.

There's something oddly myopic about a company complaining that government does things in secret, while itself considering it is perfectly at will to do the same.

Worse, a former Facebook data scientist, Andrew Ledvina, revealed that this research project was similar to many undertaken by the company. You wonder, therefore, whether it's appropriate for the company to muse along the likes of: "Oh, come on, this was nothing. Stop complaining."

At heart, Facebook is its own sort of monopoly. It's those who use it who have created that. The natural laziness and sheeplike quality of humans -- and the lack of any realistic competition -- has meant that Facebook has become the world's marketplace, where everyone meets and chats, while buying their vegetables and video games.

Now that Facebook is less a commercial service and more a public utility, perhaps this is a good time to consider government regulation.

There's always a great keenness on the part of both Google and Facebook to insist that they are trustworthy.

Sadly, their behavior suggests that perhaps that trust hasn't been earned. Too often, these companies prefer blind eyes and deaf ears.

After all, the 689,003 people whose minds were manipulated still don't know it happened.

 

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