Advertising / Internet / Technology

Why Facebook’s Latest Breach of Trust is the Worst Yet


It came out this week that in 2012, Facebook ran a short but very large experiment on its technically willing, but uninformed, user base. Users’ newsfeeds were tweaked to show status updates and links of varying levels of emotional content. Some users were shown a higher concentration of negative or sad stories, some users got the opposite, in an effort to discover if Facebook’s general climate can effect emotional change. Obvious but upsetting conclusion: yes it can. The result of the study is unsurprising, but it’s hardly the point. Facebook is where we store and present our life to the world. It’s always seemed to me to be in a place where it has a responsibility to its users to be safe, stable, and trustworthy. In practice, of course, it neglects this duty and instead acts as any capitalist entity would, by exploiting the vast stores of data and potential ad targets. We are subjects in a petri dish that may at any point be utilized for social engineering experimentation, and with this newest revelation, we see that Facebook, no longer satisfied to know and sell everything about our virtual selves, is now directly shaping them.

There’s plenty of people who already figured this kind of thing was going on. Facebook has moved far beyond the point of pretending it isn’t selling your information, the contents of your private messages, the messages you start to write but then delete in anxious cowardice. And it says something that while this experiment caught me by surprise, it’s not surprising in the least that Facebook would do it. Data is Facebook’s bread and butter, so running experiments to produce new types of data makes perfect sense.

Adam Kramer, the author of the study that analyzed the unsent messages mentioned above, is the same data nerd that coordinated this experiment. Asked in an interview why he joined the Facebook team, he answered:

“Facebook data constitutes the largest field study in the history of the world.”

This is an attitude not foreign to MMOs such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online. Gigantic virtual spaces have long been considered extremely useful resources for scientists pondering issues that involve populations. In WoW, a bugged boss fight caused a deadly plague that swept through many servers, turning newbie zones and capitol cities into ghost towns. Player-led attempts to manage and avoid the plague, along with admin-designated quarantine zones, were studied for insights into epidemics.


EVE Online, an economics-heavy space sim MMO, has a player-run economy and a healthy dose of diplomacy, as well as huge amounts of space piracy, financial schemes, and scams. With full blessing from the developers to play the game however you like, a player’s only barrier to messing with the economy is a matter of resources and their own moral scruples. In EVE, some economists take advantage of a game world where the sometimes volatile environment lets them gather data from new or unpopular styles of economics.

Facebook is outside of both those scenarios. It isn’t a game. It’s touted as kind of an expression and extension of your real life, and many people consider it necessary for various reasons. Someone without a Facebook profile may be considered suspicious or antisocial. An ideal Facebook user is engaged in the virtual (but also real) community, sharing their life, feelings, photos, interests. While there are plenty of people who quit Facebook and do fine, proving it to be a frivolity, that really isn’t how it works most of the time you’re actually using the site. It feels important, it becomes personal. What you’re supposed to do with Facebook is invest your self. You establish a second life, pun sort of kind of intended.

All the same, Facebook treats itself as if it is a game. The hundreds of millions of virtual lives it stewards, the endless social interactions, drama, relations, and heartfelt sentiments it facilitates are not only a titanic resource, but test subjects. Facebook is a commercial venture, as anyone who’s sick of people whining about Facebook will tell you. They can do as they please with their own website, and thanks to their terms of use agreement, they can do as they please with our information. So technically, sure, Facebook has the right to play with people’s lives this way. But this argument misses the real point, which is that we’re living in a capitalist nightmare where we feel obligated to maintain a presence and emotional link to a website that’s selling us to corporations and secretly trying to figure out if it can make us even more sad. Our Facebook selves are, in a way, our real selves, and our online home is now a place where we can’t trust what we’re seeing or feeling.


9 thoughts on “Why Facebook’s Latest Breach of Trust is the Worst Yet

  1. Nice article Solomon. I deleted my facebook two years ago and never looked back. One of the best decisions I ever made.

  2. The criminals I know of are not on Facebook and governments have always funded these studies. If we are to organize to correct and push back we are going to have to do it right in front of our government’s face. Great informative article please continue to bring this kind of information to us.

  3. Great post but I can’t help but disagree, at the end of the day – we did all tick the terms and conditions box and most of us did so without reading – if we are to do that and sign up to something that says they can use our data then we must expect it to be used and this is pretty fascinating experiment. Yes I’m not happy they use my data like this, but we put it all out there on social media and yet still expect a level of privacy – once you offer up all your information like that, it is too late, it is all out there and there is no getting it back. A lot like we have to be responsible when we post for jobs/careers and the possibility of our bosses seeing those drunken pictures, we should also be wary that yes people could perform psychological experiments on us without our say-so – if we put the information out there, people can use it and manipulate it. Not necessarily in a nasty way, although sometimes yes, but as a form of learning about society. And like the scientist says – this is the biggest and most fascinating live model of society – kind of like a micro-climate where everything is in one place and heightened – a perfect place for studying emotion and interaction. We always have the option to opt out and delete our information – but so many of us prefer to share!

  4. Sorry – just re-read my comment and realised it made it sound like I was disagreeing with you – I meant those who believe Facebook has no right to use their information. I totally agree with the way you describe Facebook as a game!

  5. dont be a faggot, its exactly wat you signed up for. yer whole gay article could have just said “read the fine print” and yer point would be just as clear

  6. Thanks for the article, Solomon!
    In my opinion the situation you mention with Facebook – not being a game, yet at the same time pretending it is one – is the main problem here. Many users underestimate its power (but this is not only the case of FB) and don’t realize what’s been going on for a long time: being manipulated by promoted posts and paid advertising without being aware of it.

    It’s been business all along, but one which succeeded in persuading its users that it’s just a real-life game. Most people don’t have a problem distinguishing an advertisement in printed paper (might still influence them subconsciously), but are not aware that a promoted post on social network is exactly the same thing.

    By the way, that plague in WoW case sounds interesting. Didn’t know about it.

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