Back when I was a smoker, there was a conversation that we smokers would have every few months. Every time they pushed us to a new and more remote shame-hole in the building and eventually outside altogether, every time the price for a pack would shoot up another half dollar, we would look at each other, light up resignedly, and say, “What are you gonna do, quit?”
We knew it wasn’t good for us, and that we’d abandon it if we could. Smoking doesn’t even give a satisfying high, it just temporarily mollifies the pain of not satisfying the cigarette craving. Facebook is a lot like that. Every few months comes some fresh outrage, some new way our privacy is being shredded, and, yet, thus far we have accepted it, shrugged, logged on resignedly and said to ourselves, “What are we going to do, quit?”
It may be time to quit.
Now, I’m assuredly no techno-alarmist. I tweet and I use Facebook extensively. My full-time job is at a blog. So, the Internet doesn’t scare me anymore than it reasonably should, I suppose. However, with last week’s news that Facebook secretly experimented with manipulating the emotions of some 700,000 users by tweaking the contents of their feeds, it feels that we are crossing a bright line that shouldn't be crossed.
Setting aside for now the questionable ethics of human experimentation without any form of academic or governmental oversight, you have to wonder if we’re all actually speaking the same language here. Facebook cheerfully announced that its experiments in “emotional contagion” are a success. As if there’s nothing ominous or creepy at all about that concept. We already know that the social medium is a voracious, data-sucking monster. Now, it wants to take an active role in our emotions, too?
For example, just a few weeks ago, the company announced its new “Identify TV and music” feature, which would open your smart phone’s on-board microphone to listen in on users’ surroundings and identify what other media products they are currently consuming. “Isn’t that cool?” asked Facebook developers.
"No, Facebook," most sane people responded, "that’s actually terrifying." It’s almost as if tech companies believe that if they produce enough cheery, fizzy spin it will never occur to anyone to think of the massive potential for abuse.
Facebook is feeling more and more like an online course in how to live under totalitarianism. We’ve known the thing is eating our privacy, poring over the so-called “digital exhaust” we leave each day as we navigate the web, shopping, communicating, and exploring.
Now they tell us that their algorithms are sophisticated enough to puzzle out the emotional tone of our messages. The emotional contagion study claimed that, by flooding a user’s feed with “positive” posts, researchers were able to produce an overall lift in the users’ online mood. Bombarded with cheerful messages about their friends and family, the test subjects began to fill their own feeds with glowing, positive posts.
Can we therefore assume that Facebook’s algorithms can also select for despair? Paranoia? Racism? Class resentment? Imagine what the George W. Bush administration could have sold to a frightened world post-9/11 with this power. Would Facebook have allowed it? What if it was a matter of “national security?”
We already know, however, that emotions spread online can have unexpected and bizarre manifestations in the real world. In January of 2012, a group of teen girls in Le Roy, New York began to show symptoms of what appeared to be a rapidly spreading neurological disorder.
The girls twitched, seized, made barking sounds, and uncontrollably thrust their jaws, necks rigid, eyes wide with panic. The “mystery illness” baffled medical personnel until finally it was determined that the girls were suffering from what is known as an MPI, a mass psychogenic illness.
They weren’t faking their symptoms, but were experiencing what psychiatric professionals call a “conversion disorder.” Inward stresses the teens were feeling were converted to involuntary physical symptoms. The symptoms spread, doctors determined, through social media.
The victims, all girls who were struggling with stresses at home -- physical or sexual abuse, a sick parent or other emotional turmoil -- saw other girls manifesting their symptoms on YouTube and Facebook and were soon struck with the same symptoms.
Author Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever is about the Le Roy incident. She said in a column for The Huffington Post that YouTube and Facebook were the disease vectors, or the mode of transmission from one girl to another.
“...Sociologist Robert Bartholomew, an expert on mass hysteria, suggests we may be entering an era where the primary agent of contagion will be the Internet and social media,” Abbott wrote, “Which means MPI may no longer be confined to a school, small town. But could grow as wide as the Internet itself.”
Now, given that we know that Facebook and the Internet have the power to manipulate our feelings to that extent, let’s pause and take a moment to think about the vast amount of information - the reams of personal details that we have volunteered to this service - that, ultimately, we know so little about.
A government agency would need dozens, if not hundreds of warrants to find out what Facebook already knows about you now. Futurist Cory Doctorow once memorably called Facebook “the secret policeman’s best friend.”
Sinclair Lewis once predicted that when fascism comes to the U.S. it would be “wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Sadly, it may actually only need you to check the “Agree” box next to its terms and conditions.
But, for a moment, let’s take Facebook at its word and say that this subliminal shift in the tone of people’s feeds is purely benign. For the sake of argument, let’s think of it as a marketing technique no more onerous than the tide of cheesy disco muzak that gets pumped into every corner of every Old Navy store in the country.
It is a retail truism that happy people buy more things that they don’t need and Facebook executive Sheryl Standberg (@sherylsandberg) said earlier this year, “Our goal is that every time you open News Feed, every time you look at Facebook, you see something -- whether it’s from consumers or whether it’s from marketers -- that really delights you, that you are genuinely happy to see."
Facebook wants to make its advertising so tailored to us that we don’t even know we’re being marketed to, or that the experience of being marketed to is its own form of pleasure. And maybe that won’t be so bad.
Perhaps this will pave our road to a utopian society where we don’t even need police anymore. Everyone will set their social media preferences to “Make me happy all of the time” and all of those antisocial urges and desires will get overwhelmed in a pleasant mist of advertising.
I recently saw an editorial cartoon that in its first panel said, “Life under fascism” and showed dozens of huddled, faceless human forms being crushed by a giant boot. The next frame said, “Life under capitalism” and showed the same human forms under the same boot, but surrounded by streamers and fireworks and colored bubbles to show everyone how much happier they are.
If it’s true, then, and it’s all just a matter of our perceptions, maybe we should surrender to Facebook, let go of our privacy and just ask the machine to tweak our feeds.
What are you going to do otherwise, quit?
Facebook is not alone in its pursuit of total control over your digital decisions. Mind control has become a part of modern capitalistic strategic planning. As a natural byproduct to the massive amount of data readily available, mind control is practiced in a more efficient fashion than movie brain washing plots imply.
Daily Dose of Mind Control
How many times have you ended up buying stuff you don’t need? Is your cupboard full of the fancy-looking clothes, shoes, and bags that you saw on TV? You’re not a shopaholic. It’s because of the clever manipulations of the advertisers.
We often fail to recognize that we’re being manipulated at the hands of the advertisers. Through subtle changes and suggestions, the advertisers modify your behaviour. They trick you into thinking that you need to buy their product.
Let’s take a look at the various subtle forms of mind control that consumers are exposed to.
Giving Human Values to Products
We humans like to see human faces in everything. This psyche is very appealing to the advertisers. To explain this, let me ask you a question. Which of the cars you will like to drive? BMW or Mini Countryman?
You will choose the BMW, of course. That’s because we all like to show off a little, especially out on the road. And BMW looks aggressive, arrogant, cool, and wait what? Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s the design not just the features that you consider while choosing a product.
The Killer Visuals
Did you feel a sudden pang of hunger when you looked at that billboard displaying a huge, juicy, fresh burger? Did you rush to that garment shop to purchase the gorgeous heels that model was wearing?
Believe or not, it’s all camera magic. If you gave into their manipulations, you’re likely to face disappointment. That burger will be at most a little tastier than a regular one but definitely smaller than the picture. The heels might not be comfortable at all (how did that model bear with it?).
Cleverly Placed Words and Phrases
The advertisers incorporate specialized and optimized words in the ads that invoke emotions in the consumers. The words are so simple and logical that the main idea behind them (to make you buy their product) feels invisible.
Mac Donald’s, for example, never fails to remind you that all who eat at Mc Donald’s say “I’m loving it”. That makes you think that you will too.
Then there is the word we all love: sale. Whether you’re getting a good deal or not you are conditioned to believe that sale is good. Most of the consumers don’t pause to check the original price of the product on sale. And, you only just discover what the asterisk means when it says 50% off*.
Taking Help from Reverse Psychology
This is one of the cleverest ways to advertise. The advertisers fool us consumers into thinking that they want nothing more than to help, guide, and be our friend. Then, when we soften up, they coax us into buying their products.
Have you ever noticed that green, no carbon emission, and eco-friendly tags on the cover of products? Of course, you don’t want to harm the planet and that’s why you prefer one product over the other. That’s how Pantagonia initiated their common threads program to sell their jackets.
Color association backed up by a good reputation on social media creates enough motivation towards a certain brand. The advertisers of Coca-Cola and Pepsi have repeated the brand name with the same color so much that whenever we spot a color we see some brand name associated with it at the back of our mind.
We’ve been conditioned to think like that. So much so, that when you want a cold drink, your mind thinks something like this: red equals good, blue and red equals okay, not so sure about the yellow one.
Subtle Sight and Smell Incentives
In 2007, Channel Ten broadcast sandwiched mini segments and logos of sponsors in between the ARIA Awards. They pumped a lot of information into the consumers and positioned specific brand on top of their minds. Moreover, they were accused that the ads were below or near the threshold of normal awareness by the authorities, gaining some more attention.
Lindstrom, the author of Buyology shares that there are many other subliminal marketing techniques. For instance, a UK clothing brand used to have the fragrance of freshly laundered cotton in their store.
Everyone wants to feel different and unique. That’s why the top notch brands prove themselves to be exclusive in their ideas, products, and consumers. Some of them do so through their extravagant prices. But others do it anyways.
An example can be of the American Express tagline: "Membership has its privileges."
Even when you don’t exactly see words like exclusive and limited edition, you can feel the exclusiveness. That’s because the marketers never fail to emphasise that they don’t make the products for anyone, they make it for you.
So, next time you visit the market try to think at least once before you make a purchase. Don’t leave it to your unconscious mind because that’s where you have no control.