Facebook’s Social Research Experiment

I-need-help1
Facebook are back in the news again, this time for conducting research without the consent of their users. Although maybe that is a false statement, users may well have signed those rights away without realizing too.

All Facebook did was to “deprioritizing a small percentage of content in News Feed (based on whether there was an emotional word in the post) for a group of people (about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2500) for a short period (one week, in early 2012). Nobody’s posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads”. This is the explanation offered by the author of the report about the experiment. Read the full text here.

Simply speaking they wanted to adjust the type of information a user was exposed to to see if it effected their mood. So if a user receives lots of positive news, what will happen to them? What will they post about?

Some studies have suggested that lots of Facebook use tends to lead to people feeling bad about themselves. The logic is simple, all my friends post about how great their lives are and about the good side we might say. I who have a life that has both ups and downs are not exposed to the downs, so I feel that I am inadequate.

This sounds reasonable. I am not a Facebook user but the odd messages I get are rarely about arguing with partners, tax problems, getting locked out of the house, flat tyres, missed meetings or parking tickets. I presume Facebook users do not suffer from these issues, they always seem to be smiling.

So in order to test the hypothesis a little manipulation of the news feed. More positive or more negative words, and then look to see how the posts are effected. The theory above does not seem to hold water as a statistic however, although bearing in mind the methodology etc (and the conductor) I take the claims with a pinch of salt. More positive words tend to lead to more positive posts in response.

Hardly rocket science we might say.

I have a degree in sociology, an MA in Applied Social research and work in the field. Conducting experiments of this type is not allowed in professional circles, it is considered unethical, there is no informed consent, rights are infringed upon and the list goes on. What if somebody did something serious during the experiment?

Of course “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product”.

If readers are interested in looking at a few other fun experiments that might be considered ethically dubious I can offer a few. Check out the Stanley Milgram experiment, where people administered (False) electric shocks to other people who got the answers to their questions wrong. Yale University here, not a fringe department of Psychology. Researchers were investigating reactions to authority, and the results are very interesting, but you couldn’t do it today.

Or how about the so-called Monster study. The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in Davenport, Iowa, in 1939 conducted by Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa. After placing the children in control and experimental groups, Research Assistant Mary Tudor gave positive speech therapy to half of the children, praising the fluency of their speech, and negative speech therapy to the other half, belittling the children for every speech imperfection and telling them they were stutterers. Many of the normal speaking orphan children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects and some retained speech problems during the course of their life. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

Terrible as these experiments may sound, they were conducted in the name of science. Their results may have proved useful. Facebopok (along with 23andME and other commercial entities) are behaving in the way they are because they want to make more money, their interest is solely there (even if they dress it up as better user experience). And in the case of Facebook they have access to 1.3 billion users, and mandate to do whatever they like with them.

What have you agreed to?

Padlocked gateImage Credit

Whilst reading Animal Farm in school, my English teacher at the time had a reasonably poor memory, and as a result we would reread chapters several times, and we never actually finished the book. I did however get to see a (very impressive one-man) theatre production of the book, and I have seen the 1999 film – who’s idea was it to have a happy ending!

Anyway… today, in a BBC article it is reported that according to Fairer Finance, many car insurance policy documents are longer than George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the longest of the documents they found was Danske Bank’s terms and conditions which  contained almost 70,000 words – that’s more words than Animal Farm put together with Of Mice and Men – which was incidentally another book I read at school.

Of UK financial services companies, HSBC came in top with 34,162 words, whilst LV was the lowest with 6,901 – 27,261 fewer words.

Why?

For financial institutions legal jargon is important. Terms and conditions provide organisations with legal protection and are in some ways a measure of credibility and assurance – would you place trust in a bank which didn’t have any terms and conditions? I understand that they are important, but why do they need to be so long and full of technical jargon?

Do you think companies are aiming to dissuade people from reading their terms by making them so long-winded? If so, what could a business put in its terms? Could a social media site claim ownership of your face? Don’t be silly.

Do long, wordy terms of service not discriminate against slower readers, and people who have a life? Sometimes I struggle to keep up with my university reading, so how/why on earth am I expected to read a novel length script of jargon each time I open a current account?

Help is out there!

Facebook, Google and Twitter are no angels either, many websites also have ridiculously long terms of service. There is however consumer help for judging these sites, thanks to Terms of Service Didn’t Read. I use their browser extension for Firefox, and it is helpful.

YouTube tosdr

YouTube is rated D by Terms of Service; Didn’t Read

Fairer Finance have started a petition to try and bring down the small print and force organisations to be more concise and consumer friendly. Visit the campaign page and you can also send them any examples you have of annoyingly pointless small print.

Yawn Free Coffee

Colourful

EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 100th post From his humble beginnings writing about elective amputation, Jonny has taken Technology Bloggers by storm! Jonny started as a contributor, soon after earning himself author status and he has recently been awarded editor status. Congratulations and thank you from me and the rest of the community Jonny, you deserve it. Here is to the next 100! ;-)note by Christopher

Oh I am rather tired this morning, like many others. I need to have my daily coffee. Sometimes I imagine a world where my surroundings understand me, my needs and wishes. I had a teas-maid once, that was the closest I ever came to automated good life, but times have moved on.

Face recognition software offers the dream of a newly serviced life. And the dream is here already, well not here exactly but in South Africa.

Yes coffee producer Dowe Egberts have built a coffee machine that uses a camera and software that can read your face. When it sees a person yawn it automatically produces a free cup of coffee for them. Check out this video on Youtube. Or get a free coffee by yawning next time you pass through the O.R. Tambo International Airport.

This is of course all done for publicity, but it does open up a train of thought that leads into science fiction.

This is not my first post about face recognition software. I wrote one earlier this year about Verizon’s project to fit it to TV top cable boxes, and the year before about mobile recognition apps, and since then there have been a few developments that I would like readers to note.

Researchers have been working on identifying individual animals using the same software. Cameras are often used to count wildlife in studies, but the problem often arises of determining which animals may have been counted twice. This problem could be overcome if the software could recognize the individual beasts, and scientists at Leipzig zoo have been working on such a project.

Do you know this one?

Do you know this one?

They have 24 chimpanzees to work with, and have designed a system that recognizes individual animals with up to 83% accuracy. The difficulty is getting good photos in the wild though, and in dim light the accuracy quickly drops, so the researchers have been designing new parameters to improve broader recognition.

Check out the article here to learn more.

On a slightly less positive note Facebook are again at the helm of recognition privacy. Once again, proposed changes to its privacy policy mean that already uploaded information is to be used differently.

Facebook has indicated that it will now reserve the right to add user profile pictures to its facial recognition database. Currently, only photos that a Facebook friend uploads and tags with a user’s name go into the facial recognition system. By opting out of the tag suggesting feature and declining to allow friends to tag him or her, a user can avoid being included in the social network’s facial recognition database.

No More might this be the case!

The change would mean that every user, of a population of a billion, whose face is visible in his or her profile photo would be included in the database. To sidestep the new feature, users will have to avoid showing their faces in their profile photos and delete any previous profile photos in which their faces are visible.

Facebook have however had problems implementing their recognition policies in Europe, and in fact the system was turned off in August of last year, but the new regulations seem to be another attempt at opening the door. See this article for a review of the arguments.

Regardless of whether you as an individual take these precaution, millions will not, and the database will grow massively overnight. And that will be worth a lot of money to somebody somewhere down the line, and have implications for all of us.

Blog Action Day 2013

Blogs all across the world are talking about human rights today. For the fourth year in a row I am taking part in Blog Action Day.

Blog Action Day's logoThis year the topic is human rights.

I am going to share with you might thoughts on the relationship between the Internet and human rights.

Imagine what it would be like if every day, a cloaked figure followed you around, observing your every action and taking notes. It would be a bit creepy wouldn’t it, not to mention the privacy issues.

Back in 2011, I wrote a post asking whether everyone should be entitled to use the Internet and whether in fact it should be a human right. Founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg believes that it should be; make your own decision as to whether this is only because he wants more business for his site.

So, imagine what it would be like with Mark Zuckerberg following you around all day, taking notes on what you do, invading your privacy… hold on, if you are on Facebook, he kind of does.

See how I linked that. ;-)

I am no stranger to complaining about Facebook, but it isn’t the only culprit, Google is also a huge threat to online privacy. It stores all information it collects about you for at least 18 months. Why? In the words of Hungry Beast, because “Google wants to know who you are, where you are and what you like, so it can target ads at you.Check out Hungry Beast’s video to scare yourself.

So to get to the point, I don’t believe access to the Internet need be a human right, (not yet anyway) however I do believe that the right to privacy online should be. The United Nations logoArticle 12 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Why does this not cover our online lives too? Should Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple (and others) be allowed to monitor us so much?

I shall keep this short and sweet and leave you with those thoughts.

How Much Freedom Does the Internet Bring You?

On the surface Internet living seems to bring a great deal of freedom to many different parties. Last month for example I posted from the USA, Italy and the UK, we can work from home, buy direct and have access to all kinds of information.

This might make us feel that the web itself creates freedom, or that it is free to operate as we wish. I am not so sure that this is the whole story however, and others agree.

How much freedom of speech really exists?

How much freedom of speech really exists?

Last week Security technologist Bruce Schneier gave a talk as part of the TEDx Cambridge series. Schneider is very interested in security and perceptions of security as this previous TED video shows, but last week’s talk was different.

He took the problem of Internet freedom as his topic, and raised some very interesting arguments. The following quotes are taken from his speech as reported on our local Boston.com website:

“Which type of power dominates the coming decades? Right now it looks like traditional power. It’s much easier for the NSA to spy on everyone than it is for anyone to maintain privacy. China has an easier time blocking content than its citizens have getting around those blocks.”

We can see that there is some evidence to support this case, if we look at this article that appeared in the Huffington Post a couple of years ago. It recounts the tale of Google pulling out of China because they no longer wanted to censor their searches. Google chose to redirect users to their non censored search engine based in Hong Kong. The Chinese government managed to block the results anyway, so users were left in the same position as before, no access to the information.

If we take a broader look though we find that it is not just China but other countries that are making repeated requests for Google to censor their content. CNN report the revelations of the recent Google Transparency report, where Canada, France, the UK and the USA feature strongly in the league of requested censorship. The report is here, easy to follow and a 5 minute thumb through might change your ideas regarding freedom and regulation on the web.

Just yesterday Linkedin announced that they challenging the US government over data requests. US organizations are allowed to publish the total number of data requests, but cannot break the figure down to reveal the number made by security services. Linkedin say this legal situation makes no sense, and many other companies agree. Read about it here.

“Cyber criminals can rob more people more quickly than real-world criminals, digital pirates can make more copies of more movies more quickly than their analog ancestors. And we’ll see it in the future. 3D printers mean control debates are soon going to involve guns and not movies.”

Just this week The Independent ran a story about Europe’s criminal intelligence agency that is fighting unprecedented levels of crime across several fronts as gangs capitalise on new technology. We are not talking about a few individuals hacking into the odd bank account here and there, we are looking at the new form of organized crime. A multi billion dollar industry in Europe alone.

The gun reference is of course to the distribution of plans for a 3D printer manufactured gun. Read about it here.

Caution in cases of political dissent

Caution in cases of political dissent

Much has been written about how Facebook and other interfaces have the power to democratize society, and their potential to promote revolution. The so-called Arab Spring is often given as an example, but as well as dissidents using Facebook to organize protests, the Syrian and other governments also used Facebook to identify and arrest dissidents.

There are plenty of examples. Here is an article about 3 Moroccan activists who were arrested for their comments criticizing governments at that time. One used a Wikileaks type platform, another Facebook and the third Youtube. They were all arrested and charged with various and sometimes unrelated crimes.

I wonder where they are now?

Bodybook – Because Facebook owns your face

Facebook owns the word Face. No, it really does. In the United States, Facebook owns the trademarks to the words ‘Face’, ‘Book’, ‘Wall’ and ‘Facepile’ as well as the aberration ‘FB’. It also has the rights to be the only company to use a single letter ‘F’ as their logo. Check out section 5.6 of their terms and conditions for the proof.

Cheers Facebook, there goes my plan of publishing my book ‘A book about my face on the wall’ in the US. Guess I will have to rename it ‘Pages of text about the front of my head on the structural divider.’ Only joking, I don’t plan on re-publishing it in the US.

Facebook Owns Your Content

As Jonny mentioned a while back, Instagram has the right to sell your pictures, and no doubt Facebook will soon too. Any picture you post on Facebook the social network already owns anyway. Check out section 2.1 of the terms I link to above:

“For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos, you specifically give us the following permission… …you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook…”

So Facebook owns your pictures, your videos and your statuses. Don’t worry, if you delete them, usually most of the rights will transfer back to you, however so long as they remain live on Facebook, it can use them how it wants, as well as share them with its ‘partners’. This means that you could very easily become a victim of mistaken identity.

Terms of Service; Didn’t Read note how “Facebook automatically shares your information with Bing, Pandora, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, Clicker, Scribd, and Docs, unless you manually opt-out.” how lovely of them to share your stuff for you!

Terms of Service; Didn't Read logoRemember my 7th ever post on Technology Bloggers? Of course you do! ;-) I questioned whether or not Facebook was exploiting users by using status information to provide tailored advertising – without asking.

Facebook Own Your Face

Facebook has taken targeted advertising a step further since then. It has been using the names and pictures of around 150 million people in ‘Sponsored Stories’ without their permission and as a result sent out an email checking that this was okay. Those who responded to Facebook’s message will receive a $15 USD payment as compensation. Is that really all it costs to buy your identity? Did you get an email? Did you ignore it?

Facebooks email to users about updating its privacy policy

The email Facebook sent to me letting me know it was updating its privacy policy.

Anyhow, Facebook don’t like having to pay for your permission, so they have recently changed their terms and conditions. If you have a Facebook account, you will have been sent an email on the 30th of August about this change. If you deleted it, you can find an image of my email to the right.

The new terms state that Facebook can now use your face to claim you endorse its advertisers products. You know that face you are wearing, you no longer own the exclusive rights to it. Facebook legally part-owns your face.

Will everyone remove pictures of their faces and just have shots of their body? Or maybe people will use pictures of their pets. Then again, who wants Facebook to own their pets face…

Bodybook

I doubt many people will pay any attention to Facebook’s latest changes.

Will this spark the rise of a new Facebook, a Bodybook? Probably not, as most people seem to trust Facebook with their privacy… oh, and Facebook also owns the word book, so it would need to be Bodyjournal, which sounds like a totally different thing.

Christopher Roberts with no head

Which do you think should be my new profile picture, the one on the left or the one on the right?

Oh and don’t forget, there is a strong correlation with Facebook addiction and depression

Facebook Addiction?

Do you ever feel that Facebook has got the better of you? That it has some kind of force that draws you in every time you go near your computer? Well if so you should know that you are not alone.

Two researchers here at MIT have conducted some experiments to see if they could halt their addiction in its tracks. The researchers put some code into their machines that monitors the sites they visit through their browser. When they visit Facebook too often an electric shock is sent through a peripheral device to their keyboard, and they get a jolt.

Now if you have ever spent any time with cows you will know that they respect electric fences because they hurt, and the researchers think that this system might deter them from too much use. They call it Pavlov’s Poke.

And surely enough after a few shocks the boys used Facebook a little less.

Thumbs down.

Thumbs down to Facebook overuse.

There is also the story of a young man who hired a woman through our local newspaper to help him avoid Internet distraction. She sat next to him in his office and slapped him in the face when he lost the thread of his searches. Probably a little cumbersome as a solution though, not to mention pricey. Read the story here.

So the boys came up with an automated version that posts a job request through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service when the quota is reached. The job requires a person to call and abuse you reading from a script, simple and a much better use of human resources I would think.

And we might really be talking about addiction here. A study cited in Forbes by the University of Chicago claims that Facebook is more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol, with the average user spending 400 minutes a month on the site.

Another report from the University of Utah shows that people who use Facebook a lot are led to believe that other people’s lives are better than theirs.

This is an easy conclusion to come to when you look at photos of your friends (and people you don’t really know or never really speak to face to face) while they are on holiday, having fun in clubs, meeting new people and going to music festivals, while you are sitting at home in front of your computer feeling miserable. Photos of arguing with your partner or the kids waking up at 4 in the morning are rarer.

Researchers at the University of Michigan came to the same conclusion. Read their report in full here. This is a brand new piece of research.

The truth is that these social media sites are designed to be both addictive and necessary. They make you feel better in some ways, people of course like you, but they distort views of real life and can lead to distraction and unhappiness.

They make money by selling, so they need as many online presences as they can get and for as long and often as possible. They are (as they openly admit) marketplaces, designed to sell access to their users for publicity purposes. They are not apolitical and have goals, and their success makes or breaks their share price.

On a personal note I recently applied for a job in the USA as a freelance journalist. Although I have lots of experience, good qualifications and a measurable reader base, I got no further than the application form. The employers wanted details of my social network, Facebook, Google plus etc, not my writing.

I had nothing to offer them.