Other views: Facebook’s lab rats, aka users

July 1, 2014 

Excerpted from Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times: Facebook is an extraordinary tool, but its pitfalls have become apparent. Users’ personal information, interests and habits are all fair game for the company sales force. Now Facebook has gone beyond capitalism into creepy. For a week in 2012, the company manipulated users’ news feeds to see whether happier or sadder content led users to write happier or sadder posts. Facebook appears to have altered emotional states without users’ awareness. It was unethical to conduct a psychological experiment without users’ informed consent. And it was especially wrong to do so in a way that played with the emotions of its users. That’s dangerous territory. Facebook, which employs a secret algorithm to determine what users see on their news feeds, conducted its research by altering the feeds of 700,000 users, increasing or decreasing “positive” and “negative” messages they saw to study the “emotional contagion” of social networking. The results were published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Facebook asserted users gave informed consent when they agreed to the company’s terms of service. That’s disingenuous. It’s hard to believe users who took the time to read Facebook’s 13,000-word service agreements would have understood they were signing on to be lab rats. Facebook has come under fire repeatedly for pushing the boundaries of privacy only to be surprised by ferocious blowback. This controversy sends a troubling message to users that their personal information, their online activities and now even their feelings are all data points to be manipulated according to the whims of a giant corporate machine.

Afghans persevere at the polls

Excerpted from Tuesday’s Washington Post: Millions of Afghans bravely trooped to the polls last month for the second time this year to vote in a presidential election. The country’s U.S.-trained security forces did a creditable job holding off Taliban attacks, as they have ever since they took over full responsibility for combat operations. Yet an all-too-familiar cast of politicians now threatens to nullify those achievements as they feud over allegations of fraud. Already juggling international crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, the Obama administration and its NATO allies may need to act quickly this week to prevent political chaos in Kabul. The accelerant for what so far has been a simmering but peaceful dispute could be Wednesday’s announcement of preliminary election results. Oddly, candidates in the June 14 runoff, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, agree on the likely result: an advantage of 1 million or more votes for Ghani. But Abdullah, who won 45 percent of the vote to Ghani’s 32 percent in the April round, is charging that electoral officials inflated Ghani’s total with 1 million or more illicit votes stuffed into ballot boxes in turbulent eastern and southern provinces. U.N. officials have been trying to mediate, as has a State Department envoy. But a more forceful and high-profile intervention might be needed. The danger is growing that the country will split along ethnic and geographical lines, as it did during the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s. For NATO, the successful inauguration of a new president next month is essential to plans to complete a troop withdrawal this year while leaving a residual force for training and counterterrorism. Western officials cannot adjudicate the election result, but they can insist on a credible process for auditing the vote count and investigating claims of fraud.

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