Social Contagion and Facebook's Mea Culpa: An Interview With Deanna Zandt


Sophia Wallace

Deanna Zandt, technologist

Last July, Facebook came under fire for a social contagion experiment that manipulated users’ news feeds in order to test users’ emotions. Employing a technique known as social contagion mapping, the experiment used the newsfeeds of 689,000 users; manipulating their newsfeeds, Facebook sought to find out if putting negative posts at the top of the experimental group’s newsfeeds would cause them to experience negative emotions. Facebook issued an apology and released a statement on October 2 claiming that future research on users would be “subjected to greater internal scrutiny,” according to the New York Times. But the details of how the new standards would be implemented remain unclear.

Since its launch over a decade ago and now with over one billion users, Facebook propelled the entire world into a new era of communication, socializing, relationships and emotions. Though everyone from your Great Aunt Mildred to the president of the United States is now on Facebook, the company, and social media in general, is not safe from criticism.

While it was clear that users felt the experiment was a violation of their privacy, the manipulation and lack of transparency on how the company will move forward does not appear to have caused any significant amount of Facebook users to abandon the site; social media as a tool for communication is now deeply embedded in our society. The Prospect sat down with social media expert Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking, to discuss how social media affects our well-being, and using social media as a tool for good.

Zandt is currently involved with a project to explore social contagion via social media in grassroots actions, as evidenced in the spread of the Arab spring and other social movements. But the lessons of social contagion extend beyond movements to the individuals connected by these networks.

The following discussion has been edited for concision and clarity.


Nathalie Baptiste: What is social contagion mapping?

Deanna Zandt: At its very simplistic core, social contagion mapping is trying to figure out how interactions affect each other’s emotions and moods. It tries to figure out if there is technology that can help us draw a diagram of how we might influence one another with what we have to say. Interaction with others changes something in our brains; we’re actually hardwired that way. The mapping alone is very innocent. It’s when it’s used to manipulate and influence feelings is when we get into sticky territory.

NB: So, mapping can be used for effective, innocent information gathering, but a lot of people were uncomfortable with what Facebook was doing.

DZ: The Facebook study wasn’t well formed and ultimately wasn’t totally useable. The sentiment analysis software that they used was very basic. If [the software] saw the word “great,” it would associate it with a positive feeling, without taking the entire sentence into context. If Facebook was just using our data to map out how people’s emotions affect one another, or use it to present some sort of scientific analysis, that would be fine.

We have to understand that Facebook is going to want to fine-tune its relationship with us, in a way that benefits their company. It’s what we’ve signed up for when we clicked Terms and Conditions. The unfortunate part is that those Terms and Conditions aren’t clear. Facebook changes their privacy policy a lot; users don’t understand what they’re getting into and, as a result, [end up] submitting themselves to these kinds of experiments.

We should all be very, very aware of the fact that as a for-profit, publicly traded company, Facebook is going to do whatever it needs to do to continue to make us as profitable for them as possible. It isn’t out there to improve our relationships with one another. Facebook is out there to improve its relationship with us.

NB: How would Facebook achieve improving its relationship with us? Would it try to make us happy?

DZ: Yes, if Facebook was this entirely negative place where all you saw were crappy things happening to your friends, how often would you check your news feed? Pictures of your friends getting married, having kids and their cute dogs are the kinds of things that dose you chemically. There are studies that show that when we’re active on social networks, we’re getting dosed by oxytocin--the same feeling you get when you’re cuddled. Facebook wants to maximize that feeling as much as possible, so that we coming back as much as we can.

NB: What does it say about us as a society if just seeing words or pictures on a computer screen can change the way we feel?

DZ: It’s not so much that it’s a problem with us, we’re just hardwired to be social creatures and to be in touch with one another. We have certain neurons in our brain that exist so that when we see something happening to somebody else, our brain actually tries to recreate that feeling for us.

NB: Can we still use social media as a force for good?

DZ: Yes, definitely. It’s not the technology or the tool. Whenever there’s controversy regarding social media, people will say things like, “this reveals the dark side of technology,” when this actually just reveals the dark side of humanity; technology is just the tool. Humans will always find ways to make each other laugh or to torture each other, and social media is just another way to do that. That’s not to let technology off the hook, especially when it’s designed specifically to manipulate and coerce people in a way that they haven’t agreed to. It’s a nuance; it’s both and it’s neither.

NB: What about hashtag activism? Is it just another form of activism?

DZ: Yes, absolutely. Hashtag activism is useful for a lot of reasons, we saw this most recently with #YesAllWomen that sparked and shaped a conversation that otherwise wasn’t happening [about violence against women]. But I prefer to call it “digital consciousness-raising.” In the 1970s, women would get together and talk about abusive husbands or wanting to join the workforce, and while it did isolate a lot of marginalized women—women of color and queer women—sharing those experiences was the fundamental part of consciousness-raising. It was about saying that these problems were not individual, but systemic. So, no it’s not quite activism but it’s useful for shaping conversations.

NB: Any particular hashtag you enjoyed watching unfold?

DZ: #YesAllWomen! I actually created a Tumblr called When Women Refuse that accepted submissions of what happens to women when they refuse a man in a relationship, or sexually. That, combined with #YesAllWomen, actually made me see tons of men commenting and linking to it and saying, “I had no idea it was this bad.” So, for all the trolling that happens, there is an actual shift in consciousness. It inspired a number of men that I know to start a men’s-only conversation, about changing masculinity in their daily lives.

I really believe that all of this digital stuff can be used in powerful, wonderful ways. We’re being called in this moment to become much more aware of our surroundings and much more aware of ourselves.


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