Was The Department Of Defense Behind Facebook’s Controversial Manipulation Study?

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Michael Krieger of Liberty Blitzkrieg blog,

I’ve spent pretty much all day reading as much as possible about the extremely controversial Facebook “emotional contagion” study in which the company intentionally altered its news feed algorithm to see if it could manipulate its users’ emotions. In case you weren’t aware, Facebook is always altering your news feed under the assumption that there’s no way they could fill your feed with all of your “friends’” pointless, self-absorbed, dull updates (there’s just too much garbage).

As such, Facebook filters your news feed all the time, something which advertisers must find particularly convenient. In any event, the particular alteration under question occurred during one week in January 2012, and the company filled some people’s feeds with positive posts, while others were fed more negative posts.

Once the data was compiled, academics from the University of California, San Francisco and Cornell University were brought in to analyze the results. Their findings were then published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They found that:

For people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.

You probably know most of this already, but here is where it starts to get really strange. Initially, the press release from Cornell highlighting the study said at the bottom: “The study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office.” Once people started asking questions about this, Cornell claimed it had made a mistake, and that there was no outside funding. Jay Rosen, Journalism Professor at NYU, seems to find this highly questionable. He wrote on his Facebook page that:

Strange little turn in the story of the Facebook “emotional contagion” study. Last month’s press release from Cornell highlighting the study had said at the bottom: “The study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office.”


Why would the military be interested? I wanted to know. So I asked Adam D.I. Kramer, the Facebook researcher, that question on his Facebook page, where he has posted what he called a public explanation. (He didn’t reply to my or anyone else’s questions.) See:https://www.facebook.com/akramer/posts/10152987150867796


Now it turns out Cornell was wrong! Or it says it was wrong. The press release now reads: “Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office. In fact, the study received no external funding.”


Why do I call this strange? Any time my work has been featured in an NYU press release, the PR officers involved show me drafts and coordinate closely with me, for the simple reason that they don’t want to mischaracterize scholarly work. So now we have to believe that Cornell’s Professor of Communication and Information Science, Jeffrey Hancock, wasn’t shown or didn’t read the press release in which he is quoted about the study’s results (weird) or he did read it but somehow failed to notice that it said his study was funded by the Army when it actually wasn’t (weirder).


I think I would notice if my university was falsely telling the world that my research was partially funded by the Pentagon… but, hey, maybe there’s an innocent and boring explanation that I am overlooking.

It gets even more interesting from here. The Professor of Communication and Information Science, Jeffrey Hancock, who Mr. Rosen mentions above, has a history of working with the U.S. military, specifically the Minerva Institute. In case you forgot what this is, the Guardian reported on it earlier this year. It explained:

A US Department of Defense (DoD) research program is funding universities to model the dynamics, risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world, under the supervision of various US military agencies. The multi-million dollar program is designed to develop immediate and long-term “warfighter-relevant insights” for senior officials and decision makers in “the defense policy community,” and to inform policy implemented by “combatant commands.”


Launched in 2008 – the year of the global banking crisis – the DoD ‘Minerva Research Initiative’ partners with universities “to improve DoD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US.”

SCG News has written one of the best articles I have seen yet on the links between the Facebook study and the Department of Defense. It notes:

In the official credits for the study conducted by Facebook you’ll find Jeffrey T. Hancock from Cornell University. If you go to the Minerva initiative website you’ll find that Jeffery Hancock received funding from the Department of Defense for a study called “Cornell: Modeling Discourse and Social Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes”. If you go to the project site for that study you’ll find a visualization program that models the spread of beliefs and disease.


Cornell University is currently being funded for another DoD study right now called “Cornell: Tracking Critical-Mass Outbreaks in Social Contagions” (you’ll find the description for this project on the Minerva Initiative’s funding page).

So I went ahead and looked at the study mentioned above, and sure enough I found this:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 2.21.45 PM

There he is, Jeff Hancock, the same guy who analyzed the Facebook data for Cornell, which initially claimed funding from the Pentagon and then denied it.

I call bullshit. Stinking bullshit.

So it seems that Facebook and the U.S. military are likely working together to study civil unrest and work on ways to manipulate the masses into apathy or misguided feelings of contentment in the face of continued banker and oligarch theft. This is extremely disturbing, but this whole affair is highly troubling in spite of this.

For one thing, although governments and universities need to take certain precautions when conducting such “research,” private companies like Facebook apparently do not. Rather, all they have to do is get people to click “I accept” to a terms of service agreement they never read, which allows companies to do almost anything they want to you, your data and your emotions. What we basically need to do as a society is completely update our laws. For starters, if a private corporation is going to lets say totally violate your most basic civil liberties as defined under the Bill of Rights, a simple terms of service agreement should not be sufficient. For more invasive violations of such rights, perhaps a one page simple-to-read document explaining clearly which of your basic civil liberties you are giving away should be mandatory.

For example, had Facebook not partnered at the university level to analyze this data, we wouldn’t even know this happened at all. So what sort of invasive, mind-fucking behavior do you think all these large corporations with access to your personal data are up to. Every. Single. Day.

The Faculty Lounge blog put it perfectly when it stated:

Academic researchers’ status as academics already makes it more burdensome for them to engage in exactly the same kinds of studies that corporations like Facebook can engage in at will. If, on top of that, IRBs didn’t recognize our society’s shifting expectations of privacy (and manipulation) and incorporate those evolving expectations into their minimal risk analysis, that would make academic research still harder, and would only serve to help ensure that those who are most likely to study the effects of a manipulative practice and share those results with the rest of us have reduced incentives to do so. Would we have ever known the extent to which Facebook manipulates its News Feed algorithms had Facebook not collaborated with academics incentivized to publish their findings?


We can certainly have a conversation about the appropriateness of Facebook-like manipulations, data mining, and other 21st-century practices. But so long as we allow private entities freely to engage in these practices, we ought not unduly restrain academics trying to determine their effects. Recall those fear appeals I mentioned above. As one social psychology doctoral candidate noted on Twitter, IRBs make it impossible to study the effects of appeals that carry the same intensity of fear as real-world appeals to which people are exposed routinely, and on a mass scale, with unknown consequences. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. What corporations can do at will to serve their bottom line, and non-profits can do to serve their cause, we shouldn’t make (even) harder—or impossible—for those seeking to produce generalizable knowledge to do.

If you read Liberty Blitzkrieg, you know I strongly dislike Facebook as a company. However, this is much bigger than just one experiment by Facebook with what appears to be military ties. What this is really about is the frightening reality that these sorts of things are happening every single day, and we have no idea it’s happening. We need to draw the lines as far as to what extent we as a society wish to be data-mined and experimented on by corporations with access to all of our private data. Until we do this, we will continue to be violated and manipulated at will.

For some of my Facebook critical articles from earlier this year, read:

The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Wants to Ban the Word “Bossy”

How UK Prime Minister David Cameron Paid Thousands of Dollars for Facebook “Likes”

How Facebook Exploits Underage Girls in its Quest for Ad Revenue

This Man’s $600,000 Facebook Disaster is a Warning For All Small Businesses


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motorollin's picture

If you have a Facefuck account, you're just asking for it.

john39's picture

Fraud book was CIA/Mossad/NSA from the beginning.

erkme73's picture

It took some doing, but I managed to get a pretty good facebook account: Mr. Whosteellusis Faysbook

Jack's Digestible Ideas's picture

If this study was funded by the DoD, then the Common Rule (that protects people from unethical experimentation) was absolutely broken.

Than again, who the fuck cares? Nothing's going to happen to any of these statist criminals, and they're just going to keep fucking with us until we're all dead.

Oracle 911's picture

Department of defense? More like department of war.

insanelysane's picture

Sociopaths are born, not taught.

Ghordius's picture

correct. and then hired by professional HR companies that use psychological tests to find them for... banking. and no, I'm not joking

Dewey Cheatum Howe's picture

Wrong pyschopaths are born, sociopaths are the product of their environment.

Sofa King's picture

It's amazing how everybody seems to forget the wonderful DARPA funded social experiment they tried out a few years ago with that low-flying 747 and the fighter escort in New York that they later claimed was a Air Force One photo shoot.

I would say its only a conspiracy theory but the results were published a few months later.

Bottom line...Nothing is free, if you want to use one of these bullshit services you have to pay for it with your soul.

Somebody once used the old poker analogy of "If you can't find the sucker at the table, then you're the sucker" to describe these services.  If you're a member of one of these services and you're not buying anything, then you're being sold.

Good Luck, Bitches.

Milton Waddams's picture

How much is your subscription to ZH, bitchez?

Ljoot's picture

That explains the negative ads I see on here.

general ambivalent's picture

MiniPeace. Providing a new generation with double-plusgood unwar.

IdiocracyIsAlreadyHere's picture

No shit.  I wince every time I here the words "Department of Defense".  Defense of what?  Maybe if you are Israel, Saudi Arabia or a bankster it may be "defense" but not us proles.  The old name was at least intellectually honest.

SameAsItEverWas's picture

You'd be correct if the people were "research subjects" used in an experiment of some sort.  The common rules were originally formalized for clinical studies of experimental drugs, where there is clear possibility of overt harm. 

Was anyone harmed here?  FB can try out variants of its algorithms on different cohorts, either homogeous or heterogenous, and then they can pay professional researchers to analyze the data.

The only thhing fishy about this story is that the Proceedings of the NAS published this crap.

Everyone knows that happiness is contagious, and also misery loves company.  So what.

Nobody was harmed by this "research," very unlike the work being done in my town on developing a hand-held "sound-cannon" with a sound-cancelling/shielding full-head helmet for the operator for a "non-lethal" weapon which can be used to incapacitate people in crowds as an alternative to tear gas, flash-bang grenades, etc. etc.

Yes, folks, they test those weapons on human subjects, and they do it right near where I live, in a place where I used to go visit sometimes for my work.   Most all of the experiments done there are not human experimentation, but there is no "animal model" they can use to test the effects of this new sound cannon weapon, coming soon to a riot near you.

general ambivalent's picture

Depends how you define 'harm'. There are different levels of violence. You can threaten communities with militants and then have them cannibalise the victims' organs, or you can send people a warm smile and a bottle of SSRIs which cannibalises the organs from inside. Is one really worse? I'd have to say the perversity of the big lie and killing with happiness is worse. They are attempting to create a society that is impossible to escape from, and that is perhaps the worst form of violence (as in The Prisoner).

max2205's picture

When the balloon goes up and the SHTF, FB will have a $1 market cap

LetThemEatRand's picture

I don't have a Narcissist Book account, but this issue is larger than that.  We all have ZH accounts, for example.  We should not need to unplug.  This shit is supposed to belong to us.  And Facebook is a private corporation.  It has stock and everything.  By the way all of you pure Libertarians who post here, the internet is collectivist.  Or did you make your own?

LetThemEatRand's picture

Just did, responding to you here, on this collectivist internet that you did not create or have an iota of private control over.  

Omegaman2211's picture

Libertarians are just another breed of statist, they just feel really bad about it.

LetThemEatRand's picture

And they like the unelected variety.  I upvoted you as an expression of my freedom and control over this wild west thing we call the internet.  Oh shit, gotta pay my Verizon bill to keep it going.

Harbanger's picture

You had to feed your horse in the wild west to keep it going, no?   Otherwise you walked.  Collectivist is wanting it for free.  Actually, the Internet is the most individualistic thing there is, it's anti collectivist.  It's driven by personal benefit or gain and the collective benefits from this individual freedom.  It's very capitalistic, that's why it works, it's only a matter of time before the collectivist progressives try controlling the content and distribution.

LetThemEatRand's picture

I fed my horse today, and then rode him to my private internet infrastructure.   I'll tell you what, windshield cowboy.  Prove to me that your internet is not collective.  Fence me out.

Harbanger's picture

A gov can block things and leave you "fenced out".  What does that have to do with the collective.  Interconnected communication allows greater liberty and acces to information, that's why it's controlled by all authoritarian goverments, for the good of their "collective".

LetThemEatRand's picture

Which private company created the internet?

Harbanger's picture

It wouldn't exist without Al Gore.

LetThemEatRand's picture

Nice Fox talking point.  Which private company created the internet?

Harbanger's picture

Don't know the name but it's rumored they were part of the MIC.

LetThemEatRand's picture

Then I feel better already with this freedomnet thing that you espouse as the shining example of libertarianism.  I'm droned into silence.

Harbanger's picture

I'm not espousing anything.  I'm only telling your there's nothing collective about the internet.

LetThemEatRand's picture

Freedomnet, created by .gov.  I get it now.

Harbanger's picture

.gov can't get a website to function.

Slave's picture

I am unsure of what Rand's point is and beginning to think she doesn't know either and is just typing the first thing that comes to mind between sips of booze.

It is against human nature to have a "collective" just as it is against the internet's nature. The only way a collective is possible is through a central power structure. The internet has no such thing since it is a multitude of independent systems, like humanity. A central power structure with a collective would be more like cable news, where there is one version, no alternatives, and everybody who watches it and acts in it plays the same game. Humanity doesn't have a hivemind and it never will. The government may be manipulating the internet and trying to create a hivemind, but it will fail just like all their other attempts.

Either Rand just found out today that the government started the internet or she just truly has no idea how it works. Take your pick.

Memedada's picture

Human collectives have nothing in common with a hive. And the human mind only developed because of the collective NATURE of human existence. Humanity could not have survived as atomized individuals. We survived – and evolved – as a social animal. Language, empathy (not something that has to be learned – rather, in todays capitalistic society, it’s something that has to unlearned) and the ability to abstract thinking (including the ability to perceive time itself = plan for the future, and learn from the past) is all attributes of the evolution of the human (social) mind. We survived (during most of humankind’s history) because we gathered in tribes/or small groups. A single hunter could maybe catch a small mammal, but a larger group could hunt down the biggest ones (example: a Mammoth).

Collectives have to be voluntary of course (and in that I agree with your criticism of centralized power – being state- or market-based – today there’s no difference = we’re living in fascist times). Try and Google anarchism – that’s a social system that incorporate the free will of the individual with the need for collectives.

And by the way: do you not, personally, engage in any form of collectives (groups of friends, family, any form of organizations, political party, interest group)?

Slave's picture

Not all human groups are collectives, including your examples....

Humans never stop being individuals, with their own goals, working towards their own ends, even under communism. This is why this shit always fails.

collective is a group of entities that share or are motivated by at least one common issue or interest, or work together to achieve a common objective

What is the common interest or objective of the computers and people on the internet?

mccvilb's picture

Humanity does and did just fine as individuals,as do many lesser species of mammals , fish and insects. Collectives form to share and exchange knowledge and opinions and common interests and to discover better ways of doing things. One of the biggest reasons human collectives were formed was to create an effective defense against other human collectives, ie pirates, cartels, and armies. Members of a collective still see themselves as individuals first, whether they follow along blindly or not. And collectives aren't necessarily benevolent societies. Collectives have a tendency to take on the persona of their more sociopathic leaders. Not everyone is mentally strong enough or courageous enough to stand up to them or arbitrarily choose to cut his or her own path through life.

Zero Point's picture

You're probably right, but using that to bash libertarians is like yelling NASCAR SUCKS at a bunch of red necks.

Cheap points.

ebear's picture

"I'm droned into silence."

If only it were true.

Seer's picture

Original funding was from DARPA.  It was ARPANET and initially linked a couple of universities.

Thorny Xi's picture

Bolt, Baranek and Newman, under a .mil contract, did most of the work on TCP/IP.  Now known as BBN Raytheon.


LetThemEatRand's picture

Those guys all sound like they want me to me more free.  I take back my criticism of the windshield cowboy whisperer.

general ambivalent's picture

Foolishness. All you're saying is 'four legs good two legs bad'. Collectivism isn't wanting it for free. Nor is individualism wanting the best. The world isn't so black and white.

And the internet is far from individualist, it was created by the military and psyops. What does that tell you about individualism and its connection to militarisation? They are not completely disconnected. In fact, individualism may be the deepest form of collectivism. Make someone think they are free and they become totally loyal to the body social. Individualism was one of the major steps into biopolitics.

Anusocracy's picture

Libertarians are well-intentioned people who think that aggressive cancers are bad, but slow growing cancers, like prostate cancer, are okay.

Omegaman2211's picture

I really, really, really like that one.