Sunday, July 6, 2014

Facebook’s Lab Rats and Corporate Ethics

I am glad to discover that I am not the only one puzzled by the ethical arguments that followed the recent revelation that Facebook had conducted a one-week experiment in propaganda. “We should expect better behavior of our corporations,” people seem to be saying, quite evidently forgetting that corporations have different opinions of ethics than humans have. Fortunately, John Naughton breaks it down at The Guardian:

The lessons are obvious to those of us who have studied historiography or marketing. Your view of any document that purports to be factual — in this case, a Facebook news feed — is incomplete if you look only at the document itself. The minute you consider the source — in this case, Facebook, the corporation — you begin to discover what has been omitted, added, or changed around. A commercial document must be considered in connection to what is being offered for sale. As I write this, I realize that many people have never stopped to ask whether something they are reading is a commercial document. I would like to believe there is an intuition that will guide people. Is there an advertisement lurking in the corner, or beyond the next click? Are you only a few steps away from a sales representative, fund-raiser, product placement, retail store, or corporate logo? Does money change hands under the same roof? If any of this is the case, you must assume that you are looking at a commercial document. All of Facebook, it goes without saying, is a commercial document. Facebook is designed to create the vaguely unsettling backdrop of bad news to support the false reassurance that advertisers have to offer. The news should be as bad as can be (e.g. you too have body odor, people do die on visits to the zoo, your friends are gun nuts), but not so bad that it will drive you away. It is the same formula you find on commercial radio and television and most electronic media. This balance between diversion and confrontation is the tightrope that Facebook walks, and when you consider that its entire revenue stream derives from it (indirectly, but still, every single dollar), it would be more shocking if it were not tinkering with it every single week.

I suppose it is easy for me to say that all this media analysis should be obvious, but what really should be obvious is that Facebook is a corporation. We so depend on corporations that we don’t like to think about how alien they are, but they are not much like humans. A corporation struggles to carry on and grow larger. If it is also able to maximize its profits, then it is unusually ethical as corporations go, but even this is a stretch. Corporations are able to pay attention to little else beyond continuity and expansion. It is not a native ability for a corporation to appreciate the difference between people and numbers. I think it is this last quality that has people so upset about Facebook’s propaganda experiment. It picked a few thousand users at random and used them as lab rats, not quite seeming to understand that it was affecting real people’s lives. But this is what corporations do every day, and there is no answer to it until we are willing to do away with corporations as we know them today.