South China Morning Post
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Kelly Yang says the fact Facebook’s mood study reveals emotion-laden posts keep people on the site longer leaves us all vulnerable
By now, most people have heard about Facebook’s controversial study on 700,000 users in 2012 that intentionally distorted the emotional content of members’ news feeds without their knowledge or consent. To me, the most fascinating and alarming result was not that people who saw sad news posted more negative things while those who saw more happy news were more positive in their posts. It was that news feeds with no positive or negative words made people post less, and vice versa. In other words, thanks to this study, Facebook has now found the holy grail of social media domination: more emotional posts.
The significance is magnified by the fact that Facebook adamantly maintains it has every right to manipulate user news feeds. In fact, it had been doing it long before this study. Currently, Facebook filters the posts that appear in a user’s news feed using a special algorithm that considers factors such as how often you interact with a friend and how many times you “like” their page. Facebook argues that not manipulating news feeds would be a disaster. Without a sorting mechanism, the company claims, there would be chaos, something akin to checking your e-mail after a holiday. I agree; Twitter has no such filter and if you’re ever away from it for even a day, opening it can be overwhelming.
However, Facebook’s claim that it can manipulate user news feeds, combined with the results of the study, is significant. Now it knows that more emotional posts means people will stay on longer, logically, it has an incentive to show users more emotional content. If there is only Facebook’s own moral compass stopping it from sifting through all our posts and showing us only those it deems likely to keep us on its site, then we’re all in deep trouble.
Children are in the most trouble. Currently, over five million Facebook users are under 10. In Britain, more than a third of children aged nine to 12 are on Facebook. Here in Hong Kong, Facebook, with its social platform, gaming apps and integrated chatting is the social media platform of choice.
Many parents feel it is useless to try to stop their children from getting an account. Some even worry that their children will feel left out or be ostracised by friends if they don’t have one. This is baseless, given the extent of cyberbullying on Facebook. A study done in Britain last year showed that young people were twice as likely to suffer cyberbullying on Facebook compared to any other social networking site. Ironically, we could infer from Facebook’s study that cyberbullying, or any posts laden with emotion and likely to prompt more posts, may actually keep more people on the site.
Thus, the results of the study – and not just that it took place – should serve as a warning about the dangers of omnipotent technology giants. Beneath its alluring blue glow and cool, young leaders lies an insatiable behemoth set on getting its hands on all our personal, financial, social, work and family data. As citizens and parents, we need to shield ourselves and our children from its ruthless grasp.
Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.