What Happens When You Click Like?

According to Facebook,

“Like” is a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook. You can like content that your friends post to give them feedback or like a Page that you want to connect with on Facebook.

Ever wonder what happens when you click the “Like” button on social media? Several things, actually, starting with a little shot of dopamine for the person who made the post. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that provides a sense of pleasure. When we receive positive feedback from our friends and followers it lights up the reward center in our brain. That part of the reason why social media is so addictive. Sean Parker, founder of Napster and former president of Facebook, admitted as much in this video in which he explains the process as a “social validation feedback loop” that was ripe for exploitation.

For more, check out these segments from 60 Minutes.

Another thing that happens is that the platform, e.g., Facebook, get another data point that they use to build our profile. Every time we like something, we are making a statement about ourselves, and that info is used to define us for future advertisers. Do you “like” Corgis, Starbucks and brightly colored lip gloss? Okay. How about Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lawrence, and Tammy Duckworth? Check! Each time you “like” something, you give the algorithm a little more information that it can use to fine-tune your profile, making you even more valuable to advertisers.

According to research, as few as 150 “likes” on social media is better at predicting your personality than your parent, and as few as 300 “likes” allows the software to “know” you better than your own spouse.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be known for who I am by real people…who I like…and who like me.

Regulation of Cyberspace

Social media, and by that I mostly mean Facebook, is a mess. We all know that it wastes too much of our time, makes us more agitated and irritable than we should be, and collects information about us and uses that intel to manipulate us. We’ve known most of that for some time now. But seeing the undercover Channel 4 video of the Cambridge Analytica executives has shaken people who had been fully in the techno-utopian camp when it came to the internet and Web 2.0 services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Suddenly the brave new world of the internet doesn’t look so bright and shiny.

In preparation for teaching a unit on new media and regulation I was reviewing my notes about the history of regulation of the internet…which is pretty short. Not that there haven’t been attempts to regulate “cyberspace”…but as early observers already noted, the internet does not take kindly to outsiders telling it how to go about its business. The early credo, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” is testimony to the structural logic of the internet and explains the technical challenge of controlling something that was built to withstand external attacks.

Much of the early rhetoric was hyperbolic and now seems a bit silly. As the luster and new-car-smell has faded, we look back on those early utopian ideals as innocent and naive. Here’s an example from 1996. The speaker/author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is John Perry Barlow; a cattle rancher, techno-philosopher, and lyricist for The Grateful Dead.

While many of the early attempts to regulate were focused on the content of the internet, e.g. the Communications Decency Act, other legislation focused on intellectual property and piracy, e.g. SOPA and PIPA.

The most recent piece of legislation, H.R. 1865 aka FOSTA-SESTA, if signed by President Trump, will modify the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230 which has provided cover for internet companies and shielded them from legal repercussions related to the actions of users on their sites.

So, what does Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have to do with any of this? Simply that users are starting to question whether big internet companies can be trusted to do the right thing without oversight. (Others aren’t so sure).

But if it is time for regulators to tell Craigslist, Reddit, and Backpage (among others) to clean up their Personal/Massage/Dating ads in the interest of combating sex trafficking, perhaps it’s also time for regulators to tell Facebook when it is and isn’t okay to harvest and sell our data to political operatives.

No one naively believes that this will end the sex trafficking problem…just as no one believes that Zuckerberg’s promise to do a better job handling the personal data of 1.5 billion users will end the kinds of abuse exposed by last week’s investigative journalism. But it may be a start.

Update (April 9, 2018): Since this was initially posted, Craigslist has eliminated its Personals section as a response to FOSTA-SESTA. Also, the FBI shut down Backpage and charged its founder Michael Lacey. Backpage has seen strong growth after Craigslist closed its Erotic Services section if 2010.

Democracy, Data, and Dirty Tricks

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.

This is just one quote from an investigative report conducted by Channel 4 News in the UK. The person quoted above is an employee of Cambridge Analytica. You may have heard of the big data marketing company when their use of data harvested from 50 million Facebook users was revealed this week. The use of big data in political campaigns is not new, but it is being pushed to new heights by companies who appear to be unconstrained by established ethical norms. Here’s the entire Channel 4 video…

While opposition research is not new, there appear to be new efforts to push the limits of op research to include entrapment, bribery, and investigative reporting motivated by a political agenda. This is not just muck raking, but rather “muck making.”

Just to be clear, the use of Facebook’s data is not a data breach or hack. This is how big data works and everything you do online is being scooped up by someone who wants to use that information to advance their agenda. It might be selling you something like a new pair of socks, or maybe a health insurance policy, or maybe…a president.

Want to make sure that your data on Facebook won’t end up compromised? Electronic Frontier Foundation has you covered with this explainer on how to change your Facebook API settings.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from the video above…just to make it clear that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“… we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”

More at Nieman Labs.

Media Violence: Cause or Effect?

The age-old question about media content and make-believe violence comes up every time we have a horrific incident of violence in real-life. Movies, video games, and now fully-immersive VR are the focus when well-meaning crusaders attempting to explain, or reduce, violence and mayhem in our schools and streets.

An editorial by Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and a professor in the Department of Communication, asks serious questions about modern mass media and its consequences. It is definitely worth a few minutes of your time before continuing with this blog post.

I just had a Facebook “discussion” with a colleague who is a Clinical Psychologist and his take is that the research connecting social learning theory with violent media exposure fails to draw a direct cause-and-effect line between the two. But I would like to suggest that this failure to provide significant research findings is more about the limitations of our research methodology and ethical restraints imposed on experiments with human subjects than it is about real effects. The fact that the military uses video games and VR to train soldiers is important, and it suggests that there is evidence that the newest technologies in video gaming and VR can make players more effective shooters/killers in real life.

Fully immersive VR with input control devices that mimic real weapons, and simulated virtual environments that can map the game onto real (not virtual) physical spaces (e.g. a 3-D simulation of a high school) could be a deadly combination.

If we’re serious about taking away “assault” weapons we might also consider taking away “assault” media. Or perhaps, as Bailenson suggests, video game companies should follow the lead of major retailers who are pulling certain products and increasing the age requirements for purchasing. Software manufacturers could avoid regulatory oversight by imposing their own restraints on what they make available on the open market. But I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath.

Trust and Credibility Issues Growing for Journalists

Last fall a Gallup poll found that Americans’ trust in mass media had reached a new low at 32%. A new study out this week led Politico to write a story with the following headline: “Poll: 46 percent think media make up stories about Trump“.  Here’s the question that produced the polling data.

Of course President Trump tweeted the poll results blaming the media’s loss of credibility on what he labels “fake news.”

Even if you’re not a journalist this should be cause for concern, and here’s why. Journalism is a profession that serves the public by reporting the news of the day with fairness and accuracy. It is important that reporters get their information from multiple reliable sources, contextualize the facts based on other relevant information, and present it to the public in a timely manner. It is good to be fast, but never at the expense of being right…in other words, journalists need to take time to double-check their facts and do everything within their power to strive for accuracy. If they make a mistake there should be a correction and an apology. If they make too many mistakes, they become accountants (sorry, I couldn’t resist). No seriously, if they screw up too many times they’ll be looking for a new profession.

For news reporters (as opposed to commentators) it is also important that they make every effort to set aside their personal beliefs in order to report the facts without bias. No reporter can do this perfectly, but s/he must work tirelessly to eliminate bias that constantly tries to insert itself into the story. After reading a story from a seasoned journalist you should be unable to ascertain that reporter’s beliefs about politics or any other number of personal choices that they’ve made.*

In journalism, fabrication is a fireable offense. There are many journalists whose names will go down in infamy because they fabricated stories…in whole or in part. Here’s a top-10 list that should provide plenty of motivation for any young journalist who might be tempted to cut corners or embellish a story.

This is why this poll result is so startling and disturbing. The fact that nearly half of those polled think that “major news organizations fabricate news stories about President Trump  and his administration” is shocking. It reveals a deep distrust of “the press” by a significant portion of the population. Consider for a moment the fact that trust is the only thing of value for members of the press. It doesn’t matter how much information you have or how good it is, if half of your potential audience thinks that you sometimes make things up you’re wasting your time. It’s like asking people if they believe that employees at major fast food chains spit on your food before serving it. If half the people think that they do, chances are they’re not eating fast food. (My apologies to the squeamish.)

This poll, and another from Marist College, led a commentator at the Washington Post to declare that Trump has won his war against the media. While it may be too soon to make that claim, it certainly is not too soon to sound the alarm.


The poll was conducted October 12-16, surveying 1,991 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Morning Consult is a nonpartisan media and technology company that provides data-driven research and insights on politics, policy and business strategy.

More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents — Toplines: http://politi.co/2xMOykV | Crosstabs: http://politi.co/2kU6DYm

*According to a study by Harvard University, reported in the Chicago Tribune, some of the loss of credibility by the news media may be a direct result of biased coverage of the first 100 days in office for the Trump administration.

Porn: a Threat to Public Health

The research is in, and the facts overwhelmingly support concerns that pornography is unhealthy, dangerous, and taking a toll on public health. According to a report published in the Washington Post, which cites 40 years of peer-reviewed research, porn “shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality — for the worse.”

Another article, published in Time magazine, views porn through a different lens. According to this article many young men are finding that they are incapable of being sexually aroused by their partner because of years of exposure to extreme pornographic images. These are not moralistic crusades by puritanical killjoys.

These men, and the thousands of others who populate their websites with stories of sexual dysfunction, are all at pains to make it clear that they are not antisex. ‘The reason I quit watching porn is to have more sex,’ says Deem. ‘Quitting porn is one of the most sex-positive things people can do,’ says Rhodes. One online commenter, sirrifo, put it more simply: ‘I just want to enjoy sex again and feel the desire for another person.’

And if you’re a woman who thinks this is a guy problem, think again. The Time magazine article has a sidebar about the effects of porn on women. Women who use porn experience some of the same negative effects as do men. And for women, the often violent and abusive nature of pornographic sex makes women more likely to face similar behavior from their partners.

It’s time to take this matter seriously and recognize it for what it is…a multi-billion dollar industry that does great physical and psychological harm to its customers.

The Time magazine article ended with this poignant quote by a man who decided to cut back on porn: “When I think about it,” he writes, “I’ve wasted years of my life looking for a computer or mobile phone to provide something it is not capable of providing.”

The Beat Goes On

A new report from Nielsen confirms that music is still an important part of most Americans’ lives. The Music 360 2015 Report found that 91% of us listen to music and we spend an average of 24 hours each week listening. That’s an average of 3.4 hours/day…that’s more time than college and university students spend on work and related activities (2.5 hours) and even more time than they spend on educational activities (3.3 hours) (link).

According to Nielsen,

Radio continues to be the No. 1 source of music discovery in the U.S, with 61% of respondents saying they find out about new music from AM/FM or satellite radio, a 7% increase over last year. Word of mouth is also important, particularly for teens: 65% say they discover new music through family and friends, well above the average of 45%.

music-360-chartAccording to another report from Nielsen, “On average, U.S. consumers report spending $109 each year on music. So aside from albums, what other types of music options are consumers spending their money on? Surprisingly, live events are gaining momentum, as they now account for more than half of total music activity spending each year.”how-we-spend-money-on-music-final

The chart on the right shows how American music consumers are spending (or not spending) their dollars to acquire music. As you can see, live concerts and CDs are the top two ways of purchasing access to music. While this chart may not describe your spending patterns, it is interesting to note that traditional means of acquiring music are still important. And you may also be interested in knowing that two albums alone sold a combined 7 million units last year…dominating album sales. “Combined, Taylor Swift’s 1989 and the Frozen soundtrack accounted for almost half of the year’s top 10 album sales.”

 

Rewiring my brain…this could take awhile

I’m approaching the mid-point of my year-long experiment. For 2015 I’m avoiding (as much as is professionally possible) all forms of electronic mass media. No TV news, no NPR or music on the radio, no podcasts, no Facebook or Twitter (except for an occasional post to the MCCNM department’s pages). Essentially I’m allowing myself print media. I resubscribed to the Pueblo Chieftain (newsprint edition) and have been reading a lot of books. (So far over 30, about 10,000 pages!) I continue to use email, course management software for classes, and I post content to various websites (this blog, YouTube, etc). I cannot turn off the switch entirely without taking a sabbatical from work.

I’m sure some of you may be wondering whether this constitutes professional malpractice for someone who is a professor in a Mass Communication department. Unplugging, while demanding that my students pay close attention to the media event or scandal du jour, may seem unfair or irresponsible. Perhaps you think that I’m just a curmudgeonly old fool, a closet Luddite, a technophobe, and a recluse. I can assure you that most (not all) of those assumptions are unfounded.

This has been, and continues to be, an experiment. It is not unique…many others have run this experiment before, and for many different reasons. And with such a small sample (n=1) you know that this qualitative experiment will have very little generalizability in the end. But it will matter to me. One way or the other I expect to learn a lot about myself, my media habits, my thinking process (with and without the constant barrage of media shrapnel), and my relationships.

Our discipline has a long history of media deprivation studies. Usually a researcher looks for a naturally occurring interruption in media services and uses the occasion to collect data on how people respond and react to the loss of service. Strikes by journalists or union workers who drive the delivery trucks, extended power outages, and natural disasters are all sources of media outages. Self-inflicted media blackouts are another matter altogether.

The reason for this experiment is to see if there has been a slow and steady decline in my thinking and my thought process as a result of my media consumption behavior over time. Reading Nicolas Carr’s prescient essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid, when it was published in 2008 initiated my concern. In the essay Carr bemoans his own ability to read deeply…and to think deeply about what he has read. For an academic, this is NOT good news. When I assigned Carr’s essay to students in my Media & Society class, they complained that it was too long…thus supporting Carr’s thesis. Can’t I have my internet, my social media, my podcasts, my news sound bites AND an intellectual capacity to contemplate the big issues? Not according to Carr.

A friend of mine who works with people with addictions tells me that it takes three years to change the mental processes that frequently drive compulsive behavior.  The big question that remains for me is whether this one year of partial withdraw will be sufficient to see a significant effect. I’ll keep you posted…just not on Twitter or Facebook!

MJ Advertising and the Case for Audience Research

I teach a course titled, Audience Research Methodology.  Over the years I have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to make the case for the importance and value of applied audience research. Audience research is happening all around us all the time, but it is often invisible to the average observer. But thanks to marijuana advertising, finding applied examples of audience research just got easier.

When Colorado passed Amendment 64 allowing for the legalization of marijuana they also created laws controlling the process whereby legal MJ would be cultivated, processed, marketed, and distributed. One part of the Colorado Retail Marijuana Code governs the advertising of MJ. For the sake of brevity I’ll cut to the chase. The legal requirement for advertisers is that they provide “reliable evidence” that no more than 30% of the consumers of said advertising are “reasonably expected” to be under the legal age (21 years). This provided a teachable moment in class last week when we discussed how audience research methodology might inform the issue of what percentage of a target audience falls within (or out of) a particular demographic range for various media products.

Some have questioned whether this part of the law would stand a legal challenge. According to a news report released March 17 by the Colorado Press Association, a legal challenge to the 30% requirement brought by the CPA and The Pulp (a local independent news magazine) was found to be without standing. In other words, the challenge on First Amendment grounds was dismissed because the parties bringing the lawsuit were unable to demonstrate that they suffered harm imposed by the legal requirement of no more than 30% underage readers. Claims that the law created a “chilling effect” were likewise dismissed.

Since this 30% requirement appears to be the law for the time being, any retail MJ establishment (or the media company hoping to sell MJ ads) will have to secure the services of audience research companies who can provide “reliable evidence” that can be used to meet the legal requirement. Companies such as the research giant Nielsen can provide data for TV and radio broadcasters and their Scarborough audience analytics for print media can provide reliable data (for a fee). According to the CPA news release, “the [Colorado Department of Revenue] found Scarborough research to be ‘reliable’” for the purpose of legal justification.

Mass Communications majors sometimes (and, I believe, unfairly) think of themselves as math-challenged. But understanding basic data analysis is not a luxury anymore. Nearly everyone working in or around the media industries will, at some time or another, be expected to make sense out of a spreadsheet or graph or table that contains or summarizes data. Quantitative illiteracy is not a reasonable alternative, and MJ advertising is just one example that brings that home.

Facebook’s Social Experiment

BigBroYou may have heard by now that Facebook cooperated with researchers from two universities to study emotional contagion. The question that they wanted to answer was, does the emotional tone of others’ posts on your Facebook wall affect the tone of your posts? To find the answer they conducted an experiment…on nearly 700,000 Facebook users. The methodology was fairly straightforward; they began by using software to analyze posts in order to categorize them as either negative or positive. Then, they manipulated which posts were more likely to show up on the wall of certain Facebook users. By analyzing those users’ posts they were able to determine if they became more positive or negative as a result. Sounds like an interesting experiment for those of us interested in social science and the effect that mediated interactions may have on our personal disposition or behavior.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. [snip] In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.

Unfortunately for Facebook, this little experiment (conducted in 2012 and published last month) will likely become a PR case study of what NOT to do to your social media subscribers. The issue here is one of “informed consent.” In a nutshell that means that human participants in any study must be given sufficient information about the potential risk/harm/benefits of a study before being asked to give their consent to participate. Only after giving consent are human participants subjected to the experimental procedures. In this case the researchers said that Facebook users had already given consent for their data to be used by Facebook in a variety of ways–including research. Facebook’s TOS (Terms of Service) do make reference to using users’ data for research purposes, but according to some sources that clause was added AFTER the experiment was conducted.

While all the negative attention is certainly a problem for Facebook, it is noteworthy that this little scandal has drawn attention to a much larger issue with much more sinister implications. Social media users need to be aware that their data are being used for a variety of purposes…the most obvious being marketing, advertising, and research. Personal privacy is but a mirage and signing up for any of these services constitutes selling oneself on the open market. I hate to be too pessimistic, but short of complete disconnection any hope of control of one’s digital destiny is mere wishful thinking.

You can read the study at http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full