The Social Media Experiments and You

Google, Yahoo!, Target, and Facebook all engage in marketing research. They analyze metrics in order to provide targeted ads for its customers. For example, after a summer of attending multiple baby showers and buying items on registries, I started getting free samples of baby formula in the mail. Or, after using my preferred customer card at the grocery store, I received coupons for items that I am likely to buy. Similarly, Facebook filters the posts displayed in your News Feed based on interests, number of comments, and frequency of interaction and they select ads based on your activity.

Recently, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a research paper authored by Adam Kramer of Facebook, Inc. and Jamie Guillory and Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University (the paper was edited by Susan Fiske of Princeton). They investigated the emotional response of 689,003 randomly selected Facebook users by changing what is displayed in their News Feeds. Using word counting and analysis software, they filtered out “negative” posts in one set of users, and filtered out “positive” posts in another set, so each user set was looking at predominantly negative posts or predominantly positive posts. They then had two control groups to account for the statistical differences between negative and positive posts. One control had neutral posts that contained neither distinctly positive nor negative content. They looked at the experimental groups during the prior week to ensure that they did not differ in emotional expression. This experiment took place during the week of January 11-18, 2012.

Their results showed a small, but significant correlation between the emotional content in the News Feed and the experimental groups’ posts. People who viewed fewer negative messages tended to have more positive words in their status updates, and those who viewed fewer positive messages tended to have more negative words in their status updates. Interestingly, people who were in the group that viewed emotionally neutral posts used fewer emotive words in their status updates and wrote fewer words, overall.

Based on a particular interpretation of Facebook’s Terms of Use, this experiment was perfectly legal. But many people believe that even though it may be legal, it is not ethical. Others say that Facebook was just engaging in marketing research?

I talked with a marketing expert from a large digital agency to understand the business ethics perspective. Digital agencies use metrics and data to make better products for their clients, but, as I learned, they are very careful with their data and place a high priority on customer expectations.

He said that marketing research is typically done through surveys or focus groups, in which case people agree to participate. It is true that from the technical side, they can look at trends in user activity, but the key is to not manipulate the user in any way because 1) it skews their data, and 2) it is deceptive. When companies like Google, for example, conduct research analyses, they do not want to change their algorithm because that changes the kind of data they are collecting. Google indicates which search items are paid to appear at the top of the list and they filter “bad” content, such as child pornography.

From a business ethics perspective, the important point is customer (or user) expectations. Facebook users know that the News Feed is filtered and the ads are targeted based on user response, searches, and interest. Facebook crossed a line when it manipulated the end product without the users knowing because Faceboook was no longer providing the expected service.

Let’s take an example from another widely-used, free service. People set up a Gmail account with the expectation that Gmail functions to send and receive emails. Gmail recently started filtering inbox mail by categories such as “Primary”, “Social” and “Promotions”. What if, for one week, Gmail decides to only show mail in your “Primary” tab that is “positive” or “negative” to see how that affects your emotional responses in your correspondences? Your mail is still being sent to your Gmail account, but only certain mail is showing up in the “Primary” tab. Gmail has decided to change how it filters your email without your knowledge and for the purpose of seeing whether it changes your output. Since this may change the content of the emails the user sends out, this could be considered tampering with email correspondence.

Let’s look at a second example. There is a certain trust that customers place in a product, whether you paid for the product or not. Customers trust that the promoted benefit of the product is what it will actually do. If you download a free weather application, you expect it to give you weather information. You don’t expect the app to access other data on your phone and transmit it to someone else without your knowledge. The promoted use of the app was for weather, but its behind-the-scenes use was for something different. Usually this kind of thing is referred as “spyware.”

As the ethical inquiries continue, an important question will be whether Facebook’s experiment is analogous to the hypothetical Gmail example or the spyware example or if it is analogous to marketing research.

Artificial Intelligence in the News

There’s been much ado about artificial intelligence lately. This has largely been prompted by a computer convincing some people that it is a 13-year-old boy and an article written by a veritable who’s who among emerging tech thinkers warning of the risks of superintelligent machines.

Lol Humans

A computerbot, named Eugene Gootsman, was able to convince 33% of people who interacted with him for five minutes via chat that he was a human. This was touted as a clear instance of a computer passing the Turing Test, but it was met with some criticism, including this piece in by Gary Marcus in The New Yorker.

Ironically, rather than showcasing advances in human ingenuity, the Eugene Gootsman experiment reveals some of our less noble attributes. For one, in order to make computers sufficiently human-like, programmers needed to make the machines dumber. As Joshua Batson points out in his Wired commentary, prior winners in an annual Turing Test competition incorporate mistakes and silliness to convince the judges that the computer is a person. This calls into question the value of a test for artificial intelligence which requires a machine to be “dumbed-down” in order to pass.

Secondly, the Turing Test, as it was presented in the media, could easily be one of those tests that the psychology department at your local university conducts on willing participants. The results of the Eugene Gootsman test say more about the judges than it does about the machine. Taken from another perspective, 33% of people tested were more gullible than the rest of the participants.

You Have to Want to Want It

This is contrasted to Stephen Hawking’s warning in an Independent article, co-authored by Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek, that superintelligence may provide many benefits, but could also lead to dire consequences if it cannot be controlled.  Hawking and company write that “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand.” Yes, one can imagine technology doing this, but the question is can the technology imagine itself doing this?

Hawking assumes that we will have the capability to engineer creativity or that creativity will somehow emerge from technology. However, we see from the examples of Eugene Gootsman, Watson the computer, Google smart cars, and Siri, that complex programming does not produce ingenuity. One could argue that the only way a machine would even muster up the “motivation” to do any of these things is if a human programmed that motivation into it.

An example from science fiction is Asimov’s three laws of robots. These are the inviolable principles programmed into the hardwiring of every robot in Isaac Asimov’s fictional world. These laws provide the motivations behind the robots’ behavior, and while they lead to some ridiculous and troubling antics, they are not the same as a robot coming up with its own fundamental motivations. In Asimov’s series, I, Robot, the impetus behind each of the robots’ behavior harkens back to these pre-programmed (ostensibly by humans) laws.

This is not to dismiss the field of artificial intelligence. This is to call into question some of the assumptions behind the recent hype regarding the progress and the potential peril of AI. Technology is becoming increasingly more powerful with the potential for both helping and hurting. Hawking’s warning that “the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all” is worth heeding. However, the problem is not endemic in the machine but in the humans that make and wield this technology.

From the new issue of Salvo – An interview with Robert P. George

An Interview with Robert P. George
by Marcia Segelstein
An excerpt from the interview:


Won’t there be huge ripple effects—for example, in terms of what’s normalized and taught in public schools?

Oh, sure. Of course, in many places public schools are already teaching a message about marriage and sexual morality that is profoundly contrary to the traditional teachings affirmed by Jews as well as Christians of all denominations. Institutions are coming under pressure in their hiring practices, for example, to conform to liberal ideology about marriage and sexuality.

Supporters of redefining marriage have made their argument in the form of an analogy with racial segregation and racial injustice, attempting to stigmatize, marginalize, and demonize Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others who believe in the traditional definition of marriage. And it’s been a very effective strategy despite the fact that it is intellectually bankrupt. The consequences of that strategy will play themselves out as people who oppose the teaching of the Abrahamic faiths and other faiths on sexuality and marriage depict those who seek to honor their convictions about marriage as bigots.

So, for example, anti-discrimination laws will be used to force churches to hire people who lead lives contrary to the Church’s teachings in their schools, in their social services, their soup kitchens, their drug rehab centers, and so on. This will have a terrible effect on the Church’s ministries because the success of those ministries hinges on those participating as providers sharing the faith-based convictions that inform the enterprise. Some—perhaps many—ministries, in order to protect their own consciences, will have to fold up. The same will be true for the teachings of Christian schools and probably Jewish and Muslim schools. Their accreditation would be placed in jeopardy. So there will be many grave consequences for freedom and for conscience.

And Salvo executive editor James Kushiner posted this elsewhere, from the interview. Also some enlightening answers here:

Salvo: One conservative Christian recently wrote that in the battle for traditional marriage, “Christians too often chose intolerance over charity when it came to how they treated gays.” Have we, as Christians, demonstrated a lack of love for gay people?

Robert George: No, we’ve been falsely accused of showing a lack of charity and a lack of love because that was very convenient to the arguments of the other side, a very effective tool. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people of all faiths who’ve been involved in the protection of marriage have gone out of their way, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes out of its way, to proclaim the truth that all men and woman are precious. Human beings have a profound and inherent dignity, an equal dignity, as creatures made in the very image and likeness of the Divine Creator and Ruler of the Universe.

This has never been something hidden. It has been frequently affirmed and re-affirmed, yet there are those who wish to refuse to hear it because it’s politically useful to their cause to depict Christians as mean-spirited or bigoted or hostile to people just because they don’t like something about them. It’s a slander. And for us to pretend that the slander is true is itself a sin against the truth. I’m all for confessing error and wrongdoing where error and wrongdoing have been committed. But I see no point in confessing sins that one has not committed, especially when doing so is the precise objective of those who wish unfairly to tar people or a movement as bigoted or hostile.

What’s So Appealing about Comic Book Movies?

X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer, as of this writing, surpassed its franchise predecessors and grossed over $500 million, which is not far behind 2012’s blockbuster, Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon.  Avengers grossed over $600 million. As long as comic book movies keep winning in the box office, Hollywood is happy to indulge. Indeed, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is set to come out in theaters in May 2015, and X-Men: Apocalypse will come out sometime in 2016. What is it about comic book movies that have such mass appeal?

1)      The Obvious: Over-the-top fight-scenes using high-tech graphics all done by super-fit people in tight-fitting outfits (or in the case of Mystique, no outfit)

More than mere eye-candy, there is something to the visual component of all of the recent comic book movies. Comics have always been about visual as well as verbal communication, but now the visual is accomplished with striking effects. Consider the high-budget fight scene guaranteed to appear in every comic book movie. The viewer not only sees or reads about the fight, but is able to experience it through the use of camera angles, lighting, and choreography. <Minor Spoiler Alert> For example, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the scenes in which the future mutants are fighting the sentinels intentionally uses lighting and backdrop to convey despair, while the fight scene between the past mutants and the sentinels, is well-lit and hopeful.

2)      The Just: The good guys beat up on the bad guys

Human beings have an innate desire to see justice done. The protagonist(s) winning over the antagonist(s) satisfies some deep yearning for cosmic justice. One major theme in comic books is good versus evil. Stan Lee originally wrote Tony Stark (Ironman) to be an unlikable protagonist in the comic books. But, the appeal of the Ironman movies, particularly the first movie, is his redemption and subsequent fight against evil to make things right.

3)      The Alien: Mutants are weird, but not too weird

One literary device that writers often employ is the “alien” or the “savage”. This character is an outsider to the world as we know it that causes us to look beyond ourselves. It introduces the other. One classic example is the noble savage in Huxley’s Brave New World. He serves to question the infrastructure of the world that all of the other characters find completely normal, and in questioning the fictional world, he is questioning those similar elements in our world. Marvel’s mutants are not aliens, but serve the same purpose of representing the other. A theme in several of the X-Men movies is  prejudice and dehumanization.

4)      The Myth: Superheroes as modern-day gods

It is no secret that there are many parallels between comic book heroes and pagan gods, the writers even going so far as to borrow gods, such as Thor and Loki. Comic book heroes are inhumanly powerful, but with human flaws, making them both relatable and god-like. And, like pagan gods, they can be intimate with humans (Wolverine, The Wolverine), they can hate humans (Magneto), and they can have compassion on humanity (Professor X).

Comic book movies appeal to a mass audience because they touch on timeless elements, including, but not limited to its visual appeal. It’s the old story retold in modern trappings.


See “X-Men Ethics Class” from Salvo 18

The Language of Morality

When it comes to making moral decisions, is it better to have emotional distance or to have compassion?

An ethics professor once told me that ethics is not about choosing between right and wrong because you should always choose what’s right. Ethics is typically about choosing between two wrongs. Certainly, if two people are approaching a decision from differing moral foundations, they may disagree on the “right” decision, but what the professor meant was that they are still trying to decide the “right” decision in a difficult situation in which there are “wrongs” that must be weighed on both sides of the issue. When people disagree, they are often prioritizing the wrongs differently.

Let’s take a typical example from ethics class: if a train is running out of control, and one track has one person tied to it and another track with five people tied to it and you have control of the switch that will direct the train to either of these two tracks, which one do you pick?

More than merely a macabre puzzle game, these improbable scenarios are meant to illuminate how one makes ethical decisions. Often, in the train example, people will kill the one person to save the five people. The next bit is to change the scenario slightly to see if the same kind of utilitarian calculation applies. For example, the one person on the train track is your father, and the five people on the other track are strangers. You still have control of the switch, what do you choose to do? Or, another way to change the scenario is to change the demographics of the victims. What if the one person is a child, while the five people are escaped prisoners? Or, the one person is a woman and the five people are men?

Thankfully, we rarely find ourselves in such troubling situations. However, what influences our answer to these questions becomes much more important when we move out the realm of imaginary trains and into real situations. One example of this is in medicine. Bioethicists often debate how to determine who receives scarce medical resources.

Take the train example, and whether your answers changed when we changed the demographic of the people tied to the rail. This is quite similar to the questions ethicists ask when it comes to deciding who should receive an organ from an organ donor. There are more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are available organs, so we have a situation in which the ethicist must decide how to choose the person who lives in a fair and just way. This is a case of weighing out the “wrongs” because no matter what the ethicist chooses, someone will likely die.

People make decisions based on many factors, but an article in The Economist indicates one unforeseen factor. A study in which some participants were asked two variations of the train scenario in their native language while other participants were asked these scenarios in a different language showed a difference when asked in a different language. Participants were not fluent in the other language, and were tested to ensure they were able to understand the question. In one scenario, the train will hit five people who are lying on the track, and the only way to save them is to push a fat man onto the track in front of the train. You cannot jump in front of the train; the only way to save them is to shove the fat man in the path of the train. The other scenario is the switch and two tracks mentioned above.

The switch scenario emotionally distances the person from the violent act. When given the switch scenario, most people opt to kill the one person in order to save five. This was the case whether the question was asked in a person’s native language or in a different language. However, when the person must push the fat man onto the track, about 20% of people would push the fat man onto the track when asked in their native language (This was also the same for people fluent in a particular language), but when asked in a different language, the percentage was 33%.

After several tests and analyses to account for factors such as cultural mores and randomness, the study confirmed that when people are asked about the fat man scenario in a different language, they were more likely to push him onto the track compared to when they are asked in their native language or a language in which they have fluency. It seems that the different language provides emotional distance similar to the way the switch provided emotional distance.

We live in a globalized world in which many people communicate and make decisions in a different language. Based on this study, it seems that language barriers also create emotional distance that is not necessarily there if the person is making the decision in his or her native language. In the area of medicine, this may have implications for patients who are asked to make a decision while living in a different country that does not speak his or her language. Additionally, this may have implications for patients who are unfamiliar with technical medical jargon, in which the use of jargon may be similar to hearing a problem in a different language. This may prompt a patient to make a more emotionally distanced decision.

On Nihilism and Rampage Murders

A recent kudos on a Salvo article from the latest issue:

I think it is one of the best summaries of the “rampage murders” and I wish more people would read it.   I read it twice and he makes many important connections, that legislation for mental health and gun control will not fix the problem.  It is much deeper – a culture that lacks any transcendence. Existential nihilism is a logical conclusion to our cultures obsession with contraception, abortion, and inability to integrate faith in God.

You can read the article here: The Zombie Killers: Nihilism Threatens Us with the Walking Dead by Regis Nicoll. From the article. Could Mr. Nicoll be onto something here?…

The increase in zombie-like murders is gut-wrenching. But if we think we can thwart the perpetrators with the silver bullets of executive orders and congressional action, we would do well to recall Prohibition and the War on Drugs. Those efforts failed—and to the extreme—because legislation and law enforcement, by themselves, cannot imbue a moral sense into the heart of the offender, or renew the moral climate of society. Only a Transcendence that speaks to the deepest yearnings of the human spirit for wholeness, meaning, and significance can do that.

Unless the nihilistic worldview is abandoned for one that recognizes such a Transcendence, we can expect a rise in the number of walking dead and their devastating crimes. We must teach students and young people to reject what some of the supposedly brightest minds today are selling them—that the universe is meaningless and without purpose or supervision. Such nihilism only deadens the soul, which, after all, was created for communion with the living God.