The manipulators


In “The Manipulators,” a new essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I explore two much-discussed documents published earlier this year: “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks” by Adam Kramer et al. and “Judgment in Case C-131/12: Google Spain SL, Google Inc v Agencia Espanola de Proteccion de Datos, Mario Costeja Gonzalez” by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The latter, I argue, helps us make sense of the former. Both challenge us to think afresh about the past and the future of the net.

Here’s how the piece begins:

Since the launch of Netscape and Yahoo twenty years ago, the development of the internet has been a story of new companies and new products, a story shaped largely by the interests of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The plot has been linear; the pace, relentless. In 1995 came Amazon and Craigslist; in 1997, Google and Netflix; in 1999, Napster and Blogger; in 2001, iTunes; in 2003, MySpace; in 2004, Facebook; in 2005, YouTube; in 2006, Twitter; in 2007, the iPhone and the Kindle; in 2008, Airbnb; in 2010, Instagram; in 2011, Snapchat; in 2012, Coursera; in 2013, Google Glass. It has been a carnival ride, and we, the public, have been the giddy passengers.

This year something changed. The big news about the net came not in the form of buzzy startups or cool gadgets but in the shape of two dry, arcane documents. One was a scientific paper describing an experiment in which researchers attempted to alter the moods of Facebook users by secretly manipulating the messages they saw. The other was a ruling by the European Union’s highest court granting citizens the right to have outdated or inaccurate information about them erased from Google and other search engines. Both documents provoked consternation, anger, and argument. Both raised important, complicated issues without resolving them. Arriving in the wake of revelations about the NSA’s online spying operation, both seemed to herald, in very different ways, a new stage in the net’s history — one in which the public will be called upon to guide the technology, rather than the other way around. We may look back on 2014 as the year the internet began to grow up.

Read on.

Image: “Marionettes” by Mario De Carli.

3 thoughts on “The manipulators

  1. Daniel C.

    Thanks for another invaluable article calling attention to the black box, even if we can’t get inside of it. It does seem like awareness has grown in regards to the non-neutrality of these technologies and the companies behind them, thanks in no small part to folks like yourself who read all this stuff and then take the trouble to synthesize and critique it.

    One issue:

    “Other than the unusually dim or gullible, most people in the past understood that corporate marketing tactics, from advertisements to celebrity endorsements to package designs, were intended to be manipulative. As long as those tactics were visible, we could evaluate them and resist them — maybe even make jokes about them.”

    Granted the aforementioned examples often end up being very silly, but is overt marketing really as harmless as all that? No one likes thinking of themselves as a dupe, but I’d imagine that the numbers tell a sad tale about many of our habits even when we’re well aware that we’re being targeted. Do you mean to imply that the consumer is ultimately responsible at that point? If so, we’re still left needing a strategy to understand and combat the rampant cynicism in our society which deems it banal to be blatantly lied to, manipulated, degraded, etc.

  2. James

    Realistically, manipulation on par with what Facebook did (and political propaganda, errant urban legends, etc…) has been going on a long, long time. Check back to how cigarettes were marketed to young women in the 1920s…Manipulation these days has a different medium.

  3. Marek

    Facebook experiment is an issue. A man sits behind his keyboard and violates our right to get impartial information.

    We can create rules and regulations that will force this man not to fiddle with the algorithm, but we cannot get rid of an algorithm. Unless you decide to go for a oldfashion newspaper, you will use a search engine. And search engine needs to have a ranking system, because you are not able to go through all the information in the world searching for a bit that you are interested in. So now what will it be? Most clickable on top? Closest geographially on top? Or maybe something that takes into account your previous interests and tailors results for you? Remember That was a spectacular failure.

    I highly recommend watching TED talk about filter bubbles. Opens eyes on some problems we miss from our day to day view of the Net.

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