Social media messes with our minds

Read time 3min 30sec
The fear of missing out results in an easily manipulated, captive audience.
The fear of missing out results in an easily manipulated, captive audience.

Facebook raised everyone's ire when it did it and OKCupid crossed a line with its experiment. Yet the reality is that manipulation through social media channels - from Fakecations to click baiting - is more prevalent than people think, and users happily buy into the trend.

Just this week, it was revealed that OkCupid, a top US matchmaking Web site, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology and experiment in a bid to refine its offering. That move, about a month after Facebook turned its users into research subjects, resulted in an immediate online backlash.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, argues that OKCupid crossed a line because it played around with people's lives.

Many people took to rival service Twitter to protest Facebook's psychological manipulation of almost 700 000 users' news feeds as part of research that manipulated what "news feeds" people were receiving for a week-long period in January 2012.

Happens all the time

These new takes on subliminal advertising - roundly condemned as unethical - are not the only examples of manipulation happening on social media. Click baiting, for example, is widespread, with many people buying into lures such as "you won't believe what happens next". The latest trend towards fakecations is yet another example of how people are being conned on social media networks.

In the US, the Department of Defence has spent millions of dollars in the past few years probing how information flows across social media and social networks. One such reported study showed mathematical principles used to control groups of autonomous robots can be applied to social networks to control how we behave.

University of the Witwatersrand social media lecturer Dinesh Balliah notes people do not realise that analytics are being used to reassess what sort of content to give people. This encompasses click baiting through to news feed placements and even the position of content on Web sites.

Grey area

Goldstuck explains that social manipulation works online because users are more inclined not to think about what they are reading. They are also less guarded than they would be in a public place because they feel at home on social networks, and drop their defences.

Balliah says even though there are strict ethical guidelines about how research must be done, social media gets away with using its base as research subjects because of the concept that if we give our information away, or participate, we have also given permission to take part in experiments.

Goldstuck says people buy into social media like sheep, and are willing to take the consequences because of the benefits they perceive they get out of it. He notes the real problem will come when information across networks is aggregated and combined with spending patterns to influence purchasing decisions, which is likely to lead to lawsuits.

Until this growing trend is tested in court, the situation is a "free for all" and people's recourse is, ironically, to take to social media in protest, which will elicit an apology and the issue will blow over, says Balliah.

However, the consequences of buying into everything on social media are serious, says Goldstuck, noting people could lose out financially and emotionally, or have their reputation damaged. Companies also face the risk of lawsuits if they cause pain, and if those on the losing end can prove the hurt was a consequence of the companies' manipulation, he adds.

Balliah adds people too easily disclose information, and do not sufficiently interrogate the vast amounts of content available on social media. Users want small bits of information, but on a mass scale, because of the fear of missing out.

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