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This past March, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg displayed a public outcry over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) government surveillance program, stating that “the government (needs) to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst.” If there ever was a time to point out the hypocrisy of these statements made by Zuckerberg in regards to protecting his company’s users from the power of the NSA’s government surveillance program, now would be it. Last week, Facebook disclosed that it had tampered with its user’s news feeds in order to conduct a psychological experiment in 2012 without informed consent, which is just one of the many experiments companies like Facebook and Google have conducted without user knowledge. This power of being able to monitor, test and shape human behavior on a personal scale, as demonstrated by the biggest social networking website on the planet, which makes money based on its access to user’s personal information, begs the question: is Facebook now more powerful than the NSA?
Zuckerberg’s original concerns on the NSA were based on a report from The Intercept, which revealed that the NSA had weaponized the Internet, making it possible to inject bad software into innocent peoples’ computers by the masses. However, perhaps the public should be more aware of the power Facebook and other social networking sites have over the public.
Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times originally points out some great positives that can come from such social media experiments. For instance, this is the first of its kind, where researchers through the use of social media can truly get a deep and meaningful insight into human behavior. In the most recent study that Facebook had released, they proved that they could alter human emotions by simply changing what they were seeing in their news feed. Manjoo sees this experiment in a positive light, for it is through this kind of research that people can genuinely help defend people against these exact companies that are running these tests. To simply put: if it was not for Facebook and Google performing such tests, people would never know about the results they find, thus, they could not help defend themselves from it. But when does power become too much power? Where does the line get drawn?
These questions raise some glaring – and depending on the point of view, frightening – problems with these companies being able to flex their power in such a manner. In Manjoo’s interview with an assistant professor at the School of Information and Liberty Science at the University of North Carolina, Zeynep Tufekci, Tufekci warned of Facebook’s “nudging power.” Stating that if “(Facebook) can nudge all of us to vote, they could nudge some of us individually.” She warns that as elections are often times “decided by a couple hundred thousand voters in a handful of states” or, even smaller if local elections are considered, that the nudging power of Facebook is “real power.”
Zuckerberg first denoted his concerns of the growing power of government in a Facebook post, writing “When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you against criminals, not our own government.” In lieu of this recent report, the lines certainly begin to blur between who it is that the users need protection from. Facebook and Google have touted their ability to sway the way people can feel, vote, think, and act through these experiments- valuable insights to understanding the new-aged human psyche and behavior- but who is to protect the people from Facebook?
Which fear actually becomes worse? Fearing that the government will use the NSA in some elaborate scheme to control all of us in some tyrannical, Enemy of the State-style approach? Or, is it the fear that Facebook and other web giants truly own the power over us at a much smaller, more personal and intimate, day-to-day level? Some would feel that fearing either of these two situations is ludicrous; that the government has these programs to ensure our safety and that the research findings of these social experiments are more important to understanding the evolution of human psychology and behavior and overall teaches everyone how to defend against such power.
Regardless of fear, if Facebook can truly control everyone in the manner that they publicize, then it is Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook and similar companies and concepts that have truly weaponized the internet. These recent findings simply raise more conflicting questions regarding the use of power. If Facebook is more powerful than the NSA, who will be there to monitor them? Is either of the two having that much power really something to fear? Can the world benefit from these experiments? Are the NSA and Facebook actually doing what they are saying they are doing, which is protecting people from other people? Just as it was when news of the NSA government surveillance program broke, the particular answer to these questions- depending on the stance- could be either alarming or comforting.
Opinion by Ryne Vyles