Facebook’s Secret Experiment: The Era of Manipulation Has Begun

Worrying about privacy is so last week—start worrying about manipulation

3 min read
Facebook’s Secret Experiment: The Era of Manipulation Has Begun
Illustration: Randi Klett

Last week, the news began spreading that Facebook, in the name of research, had manipulated users news feeds for a week back in 2012, skewing the distribution of posts to determine the impact on the users' moods. Over the weekend, the rumble turned into an outcry, with privacy activist Lauren Weinstein tweeting "I wonder if Facebook killed anyone with their emotion manipulation stunt."

The revelation came as a result of the publication, earlier this month, of a 2012 study by researchers at Facebook, Cornell University, and the University of California, San Francisco. The study demonstrated that seeing a lot of positive news on Facebook is likely to lead you to produce more positive posts yourself. The reverse is also true: Seeing lots of negative news pushes people to post more negative material. That example of an emotional contagion was fairly interesting: It countered earlier theories that seeing all your friends having fun on Facebook might make someone’s own life seem bleak by comparison. I would much prefer to see happiness as a contagious.

It turned out that the study was conducted by newsfeed manipulation, not just monitoring positive and negative posts.

Without explicit consent (barring a user agreement that says Facebook can pretty much do anything to your page that it wants), and certainly without the knowledge of its users, Facebook turned 700,000 users into research subjects, skewing their news feeds to be more positive, by removing negative posts, more negative, by removing positive posts, or neutral, by removing random posts. Or, in the shorthand of headlines, “Facebook made users depressed.”

I knew that Facebook has been manipulating my news feed in sometimes annoying ways, causing me to miss interesting news from people I care about and instead giving cat videos—actually any video—precedence. As a word-person that particularly irritates me. Still, though it may be annoying, I wouldn’t call it evil. This, however, goes beyond annoying.

One of the authors of the study has apologized, on his Facebook page, of course. And it is responsible of Facebook to try to understand the impact of the service the company provides. However, the days of experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent are supposed to be over.

Facebook will likely be more careful about informed consent when conducting psychological research in the future. At least for a while. The temptation to conduct other psychological studies has got to be huge. Do people get over broken hearts better when pictures of former flames are suppressed? Does seeing graduation photos motivate students to do better in school? It’s easy to come up with questions to ask.

And what about the companies that are responsible for the other data-gathering and information-providing technologies that I have let into my life? I wear a Fitbit, I do find it motivates me to walk a little more and sit a little less. Fitbit could certainly benefit from user studies that prove it to be motivating, and could easily manipulate my setting of 10,000 steps a day to let me think I’ve walked more or less than I’ve actually walked. If Fitbit congratulated me for reaching my daily goal before dinner, would I skip an evening walk? Maybe. Fitbit would probably like to know. But I would not like to find out later I’d been manipulated.

And what about the Nest thermostat? I’m sure there’s valuable research to be done around energy conservation here: would users really notice if their thermostat setting was turned up or down a degree, as long as the number on the dial read a comfortable 70 degrees? Would the research work as well if Nest told me it might be happening? I would certainly want to know if I’ve been manipulated. Or perhaps this research has already been done and has just not been published.

One thing for sure: going forward, when I’m thinking about bringing a new Internet-of-Things gizmo into my house or onto my body, I won’t only be thinking about how it might breach my privacy, I’ll be thinking about how it could manipulate me.

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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