Social media sites exploded over the weekend after it was revealed that Facebook, no stranger to controversy of late, secretly manipulated posts being seen by nearly 700,000 users in 2012 in order to allow researchers to study how emotional states are transmitted over the platform.
Results of the week-long study conducted by researchers at Facebook, Cornell University, and the University of California appeared in the June edition of the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists’ (PNAS) under the rather insidious title, ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’.
Facebook altered the content that showed up on certain users’ news feeds to control the number of posts that contained words with positively or negatively charged emotions.
The team concluded its federally funded study by saying that “emotions spread via contagion through a network.”
When word hit the internet that Facebook was essentially conducting Orwellian thought policing, an electronic outpouring of condemnation greeted the company that Mark Zuckerberg built. One of the study’s authors, Adam Kramer, took to his own Facebook account to offer more of an explanation than an apology for the secret study.
“We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out,” Kramer said. “At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn’t clearly state our motivations in the paper.”
The attack on Facebook looks set to worsen as it was discovered that one of the authors of the platform’s mind study, Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University, also received funding from the Pentagon’s so-called Minerva Research Initiative to conduct a similar study entitled ‘Modeling Discourse and Social Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes’.
The Pentagon-funded Minerva program provides cash awards to everyone from “single investigators to large multi-university consortia,” according to its website and includes “researchers from 32 academic institutions, including six non-US universities and four industry or non-profit organizations.”
The program will disperse around six million dollars in 2014 and $17 million over the next three years.
Hancock’s description page at Cornell University cites “psychological and interpersonal dynamics of social media, deception, and language” as his research and academic interests.
Hancock’s study appeared in 2009, one year before the US Army War College’s Strategic Institute warned in a different study, and in the wake of the global financial meltdown, that the United States could experience massive civil unrest from a series of crises it termed “strategic shock.”
The report, which carried the Rumsfeldian title, ‘Known Unknowns: Unconventional Strategic Shocks in Defense Strategy Development’, suggested that the military may have to be called in to restore domestic order in the event of a massive social breakdown.
“Widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security,” the report, authored by [Ret.] Lt. Col. Nathan Freir, states.
Meanwhile, Cornell University participated in another study under the Minerva Research Initiative (and supervised by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research) that looks to predict “the dynamics of social movement mobilization and contagions.”
The project hopes to foresee “the critical mass [tipping point]” of social unrest and upheaval by studying their “digital traces” from a number of recent events, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey.
At the same time, Twitter feeds and conversations will be examined “to identify individuals mobilized in a social contagion and when they become mobilized.”
Coming so soon after the Snowden leaks, the idea of a researcher closely affiliated with a Pentagon study now secretly examining the behavior of Facebook users under ‘controlled conditions’ is certainly cause for alarm.
This latest scandal also speaks volumes about the disturbing frequency of US educational facilities cooperating so directly with military programs that do not appear to have the best interests of the civil society at the core of their actions.