Social media might be the digital place where we live half of our lives and where we connect with others, but it’s no secret that behind that friendly platform lies a sly machinery we don’t really know about. Of course, there’s manipulation and even immorality behind this business. For instance, there are still no regulations to ensure the safety of users, so people with bad intentions can have access to our personal information. However, how much about it is our responsibility? I mean, to what extent have we granted access to our lives? In the end, we've freely or naively given all that information.
While developers and engineers claim they’re working all the time to “ensure” the safety of our information, they don’t tell us that, in fact, we should actually be worried about how much access they really have. It’s not so hard to notice how every single detail of our life (at least the part we expose on social media) is used by the so-called algorithms for marketing purposes. All the publicity you see is carefully selected so that it fits your taste and interests, making you a potential buyer. That’s how the digital world works, so could we really say we have free access to these platforms? What happens when social media uses us as lab rats to make their experiments?
In 2012 the group of researchers from Facebook published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study that caused a huge controversy. They explained that they randomly selected 700,000 users for an experiment on emotional and social behavior online. How did they do it? Well, the experiment consisted of creating an algorithm capable of filtering the information and displaying only positive or negative information (like posts or comments) to each determined user. The aim was to see how our emotional behavior is related to social media and the information we’re exposed to, while showing how these factors could be altered by the platform.
Obviously many users thought they had crossed the line and backlashed the media for not even considering how this went beyond moral limits. After all, they were manipulating and violating the privacy of 700,000 users, but the worst part was that they never asked for consent. Two years after the research was published, Mike Schroepfer (chief technology officer) admitted that they should’ve done things differently, starting with leading this research through non-experimental techniques. He also added that one of the reasons why it became such a controversial topic was that they failed to explain the purpose of the experiment, giving the impression that they just cynically manipulated their user (which they actually did).
Schroepfer stated that they’re implementing a set of guidelines and regulations for future experiments. Now, this doesn’t mean they’re deviously using us for dark purposes. All companies that offer services have to make analysis and research of the information they receive to improve their product. Now future research will be made with the information we agreed to provide or by asking the users if they agree on being used for an experiment. However, how many social mediums have done the same? Have we been subjects of unconsented experimentation? And what has been done to regulate that?
These questions might not have a clear answer yet, but they reveal that we really haven't changed our attitude on social media. Although these experiments were an absolute violation, we're partly responsible for the use of these new technologies. Our craving and urge for social acceptance has increased, or at least it's more noticeable. We've become addicted to likes and being liked, and we base a big part of our social stability on the digital relationships we make.
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