Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Facebook Laboratory: Social Control in the Twenty-First Century

The Wall Street Journal today has an article titled “Facebook Lab Had Few Limits.” (July 3, 2014 p. A1).

See also Washington Post’s “Cornell’s Ethic Board did Not Approve Facebook’s Emotional Manipulation Study.” Apparently a Cornell faculty member involved in the study failed to get Institutional Review Board approval for the study before it was conducted, a human subjects requirement in all universities:
In the study, researchers at Facebook tweaked what hundreds of thousands of users saw in their news feeds, skewing content to be more positive or negative than normal in an attempt to manipulate their mood. Then they checked users’ status updates to see if the content affected what they wrote. They found that, yes, Facebook users’ moods are affected by what they see in their news feeds. Users who saw more negative posts would write more negative things on their own walls, and likewise for positive posts.
Yes, this is ugly but people should also be aware that Facebook’s practice of manipulating citizens without their informed consent is not a new practice.

I strongly recommend reading Rachel Lemov’s excellent book, World as Laboratory. She was interviewed in this fascinating movie, titled Human Resources: Social Engineering in the Twentieth Century

Lemov uses historical data to demonstrate that social scientists were employed by both industry and government to develop social control strategies beginning in the 1930s. Most of their research blended two theoretical perspectives:
Behaviorism: Takes mind as an unknowable black box and focuses instead on modifying behavior through stimulus response conditioning, that links stimuli (e.g., ads) with desired response (e.g., consumption):
Psychoanalysis: Sees mind as composed of ego/super-ego/id. The ego is the conscious part of the mind that tries to arbitrate between internalized ideals (super-ego) and instinctual drives and internalized desires and traumas.
Behaviorism and psychoanalysis were fused in the social scientists’ assumptions that the human mind could be deliberately shaped, both through everyday conditioning and through propaganda. Mass media communication was the primary medium for the delivery of stimuli for the hoped-for-response.

Edward Bernays, the subject of Adam Curtis’ masterful Century of the Self (, taught corporations and government authorities how to engineer consent through communication and role models in his book, Propaganda.

Here are a few excerpts from Propaganda:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society”

“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country”

“To avoid such confusion [of endless testing of options] society consents to have its choices narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention by propaganda of all kinds” p. 39
At a most basic level, Bernays defines propaganda as an “organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine” (48) / a “consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.

Bernays encouraged political leaders to promote the fear of communism in order to make the American public more malleable.

Drawing upon research in the 1930s and 1940s, mid-twentieth century advertising, public relations, and threads of consumer culture colluded to encourage a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that would suite corporate and government goals. The ideal subject cultivated through these efforts was the obedient, patriotic, citizen-consumer.

Of course, controlling human imagination and agency is easier said than done. Apathy and outright resistance have often met the efforts of those who engineer consent.

Today’s tools of social engineering increasingly target the Internet because that is the main information nexus of our epoch.

Facebook is only one laboratory of many on the web. It is significant because of the size of the user population and the potential psychological harms that could occur to people subject to the “negative message” condition in its recently publicized experiment. One wonders what other studies were conducted and who paid for their results given the lab had “few limits” (according to the Wall Street Journal).

There have been whispers for years that Facebook dealt with the CIA. No acknowledgements were made but it seems very probable that the CIA would be interested in Facebook’s lab conclusions.

I know DARPA has been especially interested in online behavior. DARPA no doubt works with private companies, such as Facebook. But it also cultivates academics to pursue select research agendas.

DARPA has a young scholars grant and a young faculty award. See the award here

Social scientists interested in tracking and controlling users’ Internet behavior will find many opportunities for funding with DARPA. Successful applicants will likely be cultivated with funding for years.

The web has proliferated webs of control, but has also facilitated resistance as well.

“Bad subjects” is a social concept developed from Althusser to describe all people who fail to comport with ideological conditioning. Some bad subjects really are bad (such as pedophiles). However, other bad subjects would include, during the time Althusser was writing, labor and other social activists who challenge the existing social order. The FBI, for example, regarded Martin Luther King as a “bad subject” during the Civil Rights movement.

Bad subjects today include muckrakers as well as online fraudsters. What is different today is the capacities for WIDE SPREAD SURVEILLANCE and UBIQUITOUS propaganda campaigns because of the sheer range and intrusion of mass media (INCLUDING Internet) into people’s daily lives.

Facebook is part of Empire. There is no doubt. But that doesn’t mean that all its users are complaint sheep, nor does it mean its laboratory world can prevent the eruption of widespread dismay over deteriorating economic conditions and public health.

We should take the Facebook case to demand PRIVACY and TRANSPARENCY realizing that this case is but one instance of a ubiquitous, but not all-powerful, surveillance-control matrix.


  1. Here is the link for the Facebook story in the WSJ

  2. Excellent post. The connection backward in time is thoughtful and very illuminating.


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