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Former Facebook Exec Claims the Tech Giant Can Influence Minds, Moods—and Elections

Ksayer1 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ksayer1 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ex-Facebook executive Antonio Garcia-Martinez revealed this week the true extent of the technology giant’s data and influence over its users.

Martinez, a project manager for the company in 2012, helped create Facebook’s first mechanisms that enabled targeted data ads. The ongoing practice involves Facebook handing over its users’ internet browsing histories and information about purchases they’ve made in “brick-and-mortar” stores for selective targeting.

This customized approach has grown over the years into a much more complex and powerful tool. Martinez said Facebook can now offer any agency the ability to target individuals “based on their emotional state” and declared that any statement from Facebook to the contrary would be an unequivocal lie.

His article was posted as commentary after leaked documents to The Australian exposed an internal report by Facebook executives demonstrating to advertisers its capacity to identify teenagers who felt “insecure” and “worthless.”

Sam Levine from The Guardian reported:

The internal report produced by Facebook executives, and obtained by the Australian, states that the company can monitor posts and photos in real time to determine when young people feel “stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless” and a “failure”.

The Australian reported that the document was prepared by two top Australian executives, David Fernandez and Andy Sinn. It was said to describe how the social network gathers psychological insights on high schoolers, college students and young working Australians and New Zealanders. Sinn is an agency relationship manager for the company.

The presentation, which the Australian has not published, was reportedly written for one of Australia’s top banks and stated that the company has a database of its young users – 1.9 million high schoolers, 1.5 million tertiary students and 3 million young workers.

Facebook has detailed information on mood shifts of its young users based on “internal Facebook data” that is not available to the public, the document stated.

In 2014, The Guardian reported that Facebook conducted a secret test engaging the emotions of 689,000 of its users. In the study, researchers found that when they manipulated news feeds on users’ home pages, they were able to influence the users’ emotional states.

According to the study, what the researchers did was “consistent with Facebook’s data use policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research” — and therefore legal.

Martinez also wrote that Facebook’s power and influence don’t end at emotional manipulation, and that the company does in fact have the power to change the outcome of a political election.

… Just as Mark Zuckerberg was being disingenuous (to put it mildly) when, in the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, he expressed doubt that Facebook could have flipped the presidential election.

Facebook deploys a political advertising sales team, specialized by political party, and charged with convincing deep-pocketed politicians that they do have the kind of influence needed to alter the outcome of elections. …

The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

On Thursday, The Guardian made this statement to readers regarding the most recent general election in Britain: “We now know targeted Facebook advertising played a big role in 2015’s general election.”

Despite recent public backlash, Facebook continues to develop much more powerful and potentially influential technology. In April, the company revealed that it is developing the ability for users to “type” directly from their brains, bypassing a keyboard. Regina Dugan, who heads Facebook’s secretive Building 8 division and works with over 60 scientists, said the brain-to-text project is only a “few years away.” It would use sensors to measure brain activity.

Donald Kaufman
Correspondent
Donald Kaufman began contributing to Truthdig in 2013. He has reported from many locations, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and North Dakota, where he covered the confrontations over the Dakota Access…
Donald Kaufman

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