Back in June, Facebook admitted it had been running a psychological experiment along with some universities to tweek the newsfeed of users. Some were shown more negative status while others received more positive posts from their friends and news outlets. The aim was to see how these affect the mood of the users. Naturally this drip-drip method of manipulation had the expected effect; those with more negative news surrounding them reported feeling worse than others.
This manipulation is troubling on many levels. Its creepy to start with but fundamentally the shifting of our information by a corporation making its money from advertising is hardly new. Google filters its results according to what ‘they’ believe you need. However shifting and in his case, undermining the psychological environment is troubling for our newsfeeds are meant to be reflections of our friends and our interests. When a friend has a problem you feel concerned and want to help. But if we are artificially surrounded by negative news, painting our world as a more desperate and lonely place than it is, this could have serious implications for psychological health. The reverse, creating a happier world than reality could also lead to delusions but at least happy ones.
Also in June, I visited Leipzig, a new Berlin if you believe that hype, the reasoning being Berlin is now gentrified and full of jaded hipsters. Leipzig and Dresden, two old East Germany cities to the south are the ‘new’, new places to be. Both big university cities with bohemian areas, I liked both. Dresden had always been on my list for it’s long ornate waterfront but it was Leipzig that really caught my eye.
It’s a city to hang out in rather than be mesmerized by the sights but it is home to the Stasi Museum. The Stasi were the East Germany secret police who took surveillance to a level possibly unheard of. If you want to see a dramatisation of the Stasi and it’s debilitating effect on society, try to see The Lives of Others, an Oscar-winning film from 2006.
The Museum known as the Runden Ecke was a prominent landmark in the city, fairly assuming but centrally located. From here, the Stasi coordinated their surveillance. The museum shows the roles of the Stasi, the various tactics, the equipment used, the psychological methods and a list of those executed.
What most struck me was the long term strategies used to undermine individuals who were deemed problems for the state. These included a slow, drip-drip process of breaking up marriages of dissidents by creating affairs, undermining academics with poor reviews in papers and creating suspicious and jealousy within families. These were long-term projects and perfected over time.
Does facebook tweek the world we live in to try to make us believe things? Well yes of course. That’s advertising but at least we know what we see. When what we believe to be our natural world is in fact completely manipulated by a corporation in the name of experimentation, however innocent, opens a whole new area or maybe just shines a light on what’s been happening all along.