Break out the tinfoil helmets!

From "Signs," 2002

From “Signs,” 2002

I find the tinfoil helmet image is always good for a laugh – don’t want those pesky aliens messing with our thought patterns! At the same time, we all know aliens aren’t the problem. I recently read a statistic that in the US, we see as many advertisements in a year as people 50 years ago did in their lifetimes. Advertisers explicitly set out to mess with our thought patterns. Now an NPR post reveals that “Facebook scientists” have messed with our thoughts as well.

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

Here’s the gist of their experiment:

“For one week back in 2012, Facebook scientists altered what appeared on the News Feed of more than 600,000 users. One group got mostly positive items; the other got mostly negative items.

Scientists then monitored the posts of those people and found that they were more negative if they received the negative News Feed and more positive if they received positive items.”

Experimental methods rapidly followed the birth of psychology in the last century as social scientists sought acceptance into the real community of science. Freud, after all, won his Nobel Prize in literature, not science.

Back in the day, psych experiments were conducted on helpless animals and hapless college students who needed to make a buck. Now, Facebook Scientists (don’t you wish you could see their credentials?) can run such tests on all of us for free, because no human being now living has ever read the Terms of Service for anything online that they wish to join.

I actually find it interesting that this particular test confirmed a hunch I’ve been working out on this blog over the last few months:  Reading negative news makes me crabby, while reading positive news improves my disposition. Only took me four years of blogging to work that out, a truth that could also be summarized by these wise words of British author, Kingsley Amis:  “Nice things are nicer than nasty ones.”

Oh yes, and I was being precise when I said four years – I launched this blog four years ago on June 28. They say most blogs don’t last that long, and I know I’m posting less often lately – it seems like I always get lazy in summer, especially in June. But all of you readers keep me hunting for interesting things, or weird things (like Facebook scientists) to share.  So thanks, I appreciate it, and please stay tuned!

19 thoughts on “Break out the tinfoil helmets!

  1. Pingback: Break out the tinfoil helmets! | Brittius

  2. I loved Signs and this piece of news has freaked me out. omg, we are being used? by the thought police? ahem…excuse me…the Facebook scientists? 😉
    Thanks for another great post, Morgan!


    • Yes, Selena, I haven’t really digested the ramifications. What I did realize early on when I saw this post was how numb I have become. Literally, one of the thoughts I had upon reading this was something like, “Oh well, at least here hasn’t been a mass shooting this week. “Like whew, we only hit a 4 on the insanity scale this week.” Really pretty sad.


      • That is what is so dangerous about it. We take it as part and parcel of our way of life; and so our liberties slip away without even realizing it. Thought provoking…


    • I’ll be really interested to see what you do with that. The literal image that comes to mind, which you see all to often these days, is two people at a restaurant, interacting with their phones instead of each other. One thing that comes to mind is the line from T.S. Eliot, “Till human voices wake us and we drown.”


  3. Holy s+++ this is the first I’ve heard about this Facebook fiasco. Granted, I don’t think anyone was “harmed” by something like this but I have experience with university IRBs (institutional review boards), which must give approval for any experiments involving humans. If anyone involved in executing this FB study was affiliated with a university, and they did not run the study protocol past an IRB for approval, they would be in big trouble.

    Not that this methodology is dangerous per se, the problem is it shows a disregard for established protections built into the modern research system.

    Shame on you FB!
    (And thanks, Morgan)


  4. What about informed consent? Not very ethical, was it FB? Fellow WP blogger Dylan Hearn had some interesting thoughts on this in his Suffolk Scribblings.

    Also, what of the follow-up debriefing that should have come after. And did.anyone go into deep depression afterwards and harm themselves? Will we ever know?

    Trust is the biggest loser here, I think.


    • Trust is indeed the biggest loser, but FB will get away with it because they can. I just read an updated comment on USA Today, where a marketing wonk said, in essence, nothing will happen. “People may voice anger over some new traffic law, but they’ll still be driving tomorrow.”


  5. I had to laugh when I saw the tinfoil hats. We have a neighbor who has been accusing Dave and I of playing loud music that is disturbing him. He has called me several times between midnight and 3:00 am yelling at me to “turn off that radio now!” This is a man we have been friends with for many years and even went on a cruise with him and his girlfriend. He called me one day and asked if he could wrap our gas meter with aluminum foil. He said the gas company no longer has people takes readings but do it all wirelessly. Sure, I told him. No harm in having it wrapped. He proudly told me later he had wrapped it in five layers. We did a lot of research on the internet and are quite sure he has a fascinating condition called Musical Ear Syndrome. You can find some good information by Googling it. Anyway, you mention tinfoil and I will be laughing. What else can you do? Thanks for the laugh today. Love the photo. Don’t love Facebook.


    • I’ve seen two accounts of the “smart” credit cards that are coming our way – catching up with the rest of the world in the wake of last year’s Target fiasco. Embedded chips. Some say it greatly increases security. I’ve read other accounts that say it is vulnerable to being scanned in public places, so order a safety sleeve (from us) or wrap it in aluminum foil. I alway look/read twice when I hear of that kind of use for the foil.


  6. Happy four years! Happy post! Happy comment! 🙂

    The power of advertising is super scary, just today I ran across a bunch of sexist ads from the Mad Men era; one of which was an ad for men’s ties that included the slogan “Show Her it’s a Man’s World” accompanied by an image of a man lounging in bed, dressed in suit and tie while a woman knelt bedside and delivered a silver tray topped with breakfast and coffee. The ad was for ties. Without going into the obvious sexist brainwashing this ad promotes, I sat there scratching my head thinking…Seriously, who gets up and puts on a shirt and tie and then gets back in bed????

    Oops this was supposed to be a positive comment!!

    I think I started following you because you left such thoughtful comments on other blogs I read and your writings here certainly don’t disappoint! I really appreciate your range and diversity, so yes, please keep blogging for four more years…at least 🙂


    • Thanks for you kind words.

      I’m not so worried about adds that venture into the realm of the stupid. I’ve been fortunate enough to live my life so far only putting on a suit and tie for weddings and funerals (and my favorite is a Jerry Garcia tie to boot), so that add is not likely to entice me. But marketeers are a lot more subtle than that, with those whispered images of who we are supposed to be and what additional stuff we need to pull it off.

      I appreciate everyone in the blogging community, like yourself and many others who try to be themselves and share the exploration.


  7. Congratulations! And about those FB scientists…when my dad developed a heart condition in the nineteen-seventies the first thing his cardiologist told him was to stop watching the nightly news. Rx: nil by Walter Conkite


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