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Social Media and Big Brother

by on July 06, 2014 6:00 AM

In recent weeks, I have been reminded of 1984.

Not the year that I was still an awkward teenager but the George Orwell classic, which I read as an awkward teenager and it shaped my thinking.

For those not fortunate enough to have read the classic dystopian novel, it was published in 1949 and thus illustrated a future 1984 where an omnipresent government led by Big Brother has the public under constant scrutiny and manipulates the public and history.

The current reality show called Big Brother was named after the supposed party leader in the book. The most recent example of Big Brother type activity is the shenanigans of social media giant, Facebook (FB).

In 2012, Facebook manipulated the news feed of 690,000 users for an emotion contagion study. For a week in January of that year, Facebook altered those users' feeds by showing half the 'participants' negative posts and news while the other (lucky) half saw positive news and posts.

They watched to see if that affected the users' posts and feelings. Unsurprisingly, the users who received the negative feeds were more negative themselves. Anyone who has read workplace studies could have saved the folks at Facebook some money and time by filling them in on the contagiousness of negativity, but I digress.

The positive user feeds influenced the second group to post more positively. The results of the study by Facebook in conjunction with Cornell University and University of California were published this week revealing the emotional manipulation to the world and creating a wave of controversy.

The idea that a social media site whose mission is "to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected" changed client feeds to do research without their knowledge or consent is at minimum unethical. Was it illegal? Their user agreement, which is over 900 words long and which we all read thoroughly before signing up (ahem), includes a segment that discloses information may be used for internal operations including research.

However, Facebook reportedly added the word 'research' four months after the study in May 2012. Manipulated news feeds are a given but using Facebook participants as lab rats is quite another. In addition, the research was not sorted for age so the study may have been done on users under the age of 18.

A seemingly innocent social network manipulating its users, possibly children, and experimenting on them without their consent or knowledge: does that sound like something out of 1984? The use and misuse of social media is a powerful force in shaping ideas and influencing thought. Will people give up Facebook in protest? How much are you willing to compromise for your Facebook friends?

The internet, email, technology and social media are creating a trade-off. Privacy is becoming an archaic concept. A questionable photo on Facebook or a rant on Twitter can get one expelled, destroy a marriage, or upend a job, not only for us common people but even television host Adam Richman. His rant on Instagram caused the Travel Channel to postpone or possibly cancel his new show.

The reality is that anything in text, email or social media is public. Our next generation has grown up knowing nothing but constant contact through texts, social media and invasive technology. Even Snapchat, an app designed for short-term pictures that will show recipients what was shared for at most ten seconds, can be overcome by a screenshot.

How much privacy are we willing to give up for a large firm's profits? How far will firms take it? The answer might be: as far as we let them. Thankfully, the power to disconnect still lies with the individual.

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Judy Loy, ChFCâ, is a Registered Investment Advisor and CEO at Nestlerode & Loy Investment Advisors, State College, Pa. A graduate of Penn State University, Loy has been with the firm since 1992, assisting clients with retirement planning, brokerage services and investment advice. She can be reached at jloy@nestlerode.com.
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