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July 10, 2014, 7:54 a.m.
Audience & Social
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Ken Doctor: Mind your own business, Facebook and Google

“It’s not the hive that’s at issue here. It’s the big, monopolistic beekeepers who should give us pause.”

No, Facebook and Google aren’t practicing mind control on us, are they? That’s just silly. Their business is the highly prosaic selling of advertising, less romantic than Mad Men, more lucrative than Midas. Mind control is just a side pursuit, one of those many auxiliary products in eternal beta, that might turn into something big.

But mind control is on our minds. The two companies — which now control 49 percent of the $50 billion U.S. digital ad market and about 68 percent of the fastest-growing ad market, the $32 billion global mobile ad sector — both play mind games with their customers. How well do they do it? We don’t yet know. In the biggest case, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg could offer only the lamest of apologies — “This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated. And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you” — in trying to explain how Facebook had played mind games on 700,000 of its users in January 2012. The company disproportionately displaying positive or negative statuses for one week in its News Feed.

Is this cluelessness, or just a symptom of unbridled, lean-back-and-play-with-them arrogance? Or both? (Excellent, thoughtful Jay Rosen parsing of Facebook’s “having all the power” and its implications, in Atlantic, here.)

Yesterday, we learned, via Aarti Shahani of NPR, that Google’s “social newsroom” rejected going negative in its social selection of content about Brasil’s crushing World Cup loss to Germany Tuesday. “In Google Newsroom, Brazil Defeat Is Not A Headline,” reads the NPR story. It goes on to explain that a collection of “data scientists, translators, cultural experts and copywriters turn search results on the World Cup into viral factoids.” Well, not really the facts of the results, but a version of them meant to please readers and juice traffic. Factoid, rather than fact, perhaps. More in the pursuit of truthiness than truth.

Let’s be clear and fair: A Google news search does pull up “crushing,” “stunning,” “ruthless,” and more in way of adjectives that describe the, uh, reality of the game. This Google unit, though, chose its own version of reality to present as fact(oid). Or didn’t, as Shahani reports:

After the dramatic defeat by Germany, the team also makes a revealing choice to not publish a single trend on Brazilian search terms. Copywriter Tessa Hewson says they’re just too negative. “We might try and wait until we can do a slightly more upbeat trend.”

That puzzles me.

Google has powerful data to see exactly what the audience wants, and produce news-on-demand. The entire world was searching for Neymar — Brazil’s superstar player who sat out after fracturing a vertebra. Google could have looked for related search terms, and created content for people to grieve or laugh.

I ask the team why they wouldn’t use a negative headline. Many headlines are negative.

“We’re also quite keen not to rub salt into the wounds,” producer Sam Clohesy says, “and a negative story about Brazil won’t necessarily get a lot of traction in social.”

Take a look at the picture of the four data scientists pictured in the NPR story. Younger, earnest, undoubtedly brilliant. They are sitting in what Google calls a “newsroom.” It’s not the data scientists’ fault. Some of my best friends are data scientists — but they don’t pretend to be journalists. Google, and many of its fellow travelers, hold on to this pretense that they are “doing news,” because they publish news, all or almost of all it written by practicing, standards-observed, non-mind-control-seeking journalists.

Algorithms don’t make a newsroom. They may make a news product — some of which are highly useful to all of us — but they don’t operate newsrooms. Journalists do that. The best ones do that without fear or favor, and they certainly don’t do it with happy-face factory guidelines. Call it feeding the happy social network, if you’d like — which was Google’s justification for eschewing truthful headlines about Brazil’s humiliation — but don’t call it news or a News Feed, and please don’t say it came out of a “newsroom.” Words have meaning.

Google and Facebook provide many services to us that we now consider essential, almost irreplaceable. Yet they seem to have no boundaries. Business sector boundaries are a blur, as digital eats everything, but more troubling are their ethical boundaries. How can companies that seem to offer so much good — for free — do bad things? Ironically, for companies so interested in knowing how their customers think moment by moment (so they can monetize that thinking), they are sometimes thoughtless about their own actions.

One hundred years ago, the trust busters saw that too big is too bad for society and took steps to staunch runaway market dominance, steps that benefitted Americans for many decades. Today’s bigness seems so different than that of the early 1900s. Google, Facebook, and Comcast don’t seem to be in the same league as Standard Oil, American Tobacco, and the Northern Securities Company. Despite all the hardware they own, they seem to traffic largely in pixels and invisible packets. Outmoded antitrust laws and the accompanying regulatory apparatus, (FTC, FCC, and DOJ in the U.S., several E.U. entities in Europe) can’t keep pace, trying to apply old, sensible law to new sense-rattling innovation. Square peg, round hole; try it a thousand times, it won’t work. It’s not a fair contest; regulators are in a muddle (the Comcast/Time Warner Cable case is today’s best example), and meanwhile unbridled market power multiplies.

That market power is a big concern, but the two recent mind games that have surfaced (are there more?) raise greater questions. As odious as the NSA’s spying on Americans (and everyone else) has been, the potential implications of mood control strategies could be far larger. Sensory manipulation is no longer sci-fi; Aldous Huxley’s soma is going digital. What was the Facebook experiment on us about: gauging the power of “emotional contagion through social networks.” Imagine the uproar if Fox News or MSNBC had done that, or politicians.

I can almost hear the Facebook and Google replies before the question is asked: Who asked you to skew your mass-reaching content to produce cheerfulness? The people, as expressed through the social hive, did, they’d say. Google and Facebook as servers — and pushers. If “Facebook intentionally made thousands upon thousands of people sad,” as Slate’s Katy Waldman succintly put it in a smart column, some of us are just collateral damage.

Our wondrous digital hive is alive and growing exponentially. That’s largely a good thing, maximizing the reach of our too-small brains. It’s not the hive that’s at issue here. It’s the big, monopolistic beekeepers who should give us pause. It’s the ad business that should be fair game for Google and Facebook. It’s enough of a challenge for everyone else, fair or not, if they just mind that.

Photo by Maigh used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 10, 2014, 7:54 a.m.
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