A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed on the weekend that in January of 2012, Facebook manipulated the feeds of 689,003 English language users, making slight alterations to see if they could change the large scale mood of the populace. The answer was a resounding yes, a terrifying and appalling yes. The most obvious scandal here is that Facebook is willing, just to see how strong it really is, to experiment with its users’ happiness and sadness. But what is most troubling about the PNAS study is the simple fact that a new force for social control has emerged. It makes the powers of previous surveillance states looks negligible. Joseph Goebbels would have rubbed his hands in glee. What Facebook has revealed, with its little experiment, is that Facebook is too important to be left in the hands of Facebook.
Several critics have compared Facebook’s mood experiment with the Milgram experiment. In that famous series of tests, a group of psychologists proved the willingness of people to obey authority by creating scenarios in which subjects believed they were torturing their fellows under the directions of doctors. The Milgram subjects had never agreed to have their evil revealed, and because of the trauma they suffered a series of new protocols that were designed to ensure the ethics of future experiments. The parallels between Milgram and the Facebook experiment are obvious although the scale is much larger: Literally thousands and thousands of people were made to feel slightly worse without their knowledge in order to find out whether they could be made to feel worse.
What are the possibilities of this new reality in which a private company, responsible only to its shareholders, can change the mood of whole populations? The obvious question: Why advertise at all anymore? There is a direct and quantifiable way to change what society feels.