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.

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.

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.

The Argument of Tears

USAF Cellist

by Terrell Clemmons

A typical crowd of tourists, seniors, and schoolchildren on field trips was mulling around the large lobby of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when a young man, wearing full military dress and carrying a cello, walked toward a chair curiously placed in the center of the large room and sat down. He took up his bow in one hand, stretched his other arm to adjust the sleeve, and began playing with calm, expert finesse.

After the opening measures, another soldier musician approached with a standup bass and joined in. A small riser was brought out, and a graying maestro removed his overcoat and accepted the conductor’s baton from an assistant with a cordial salute. An oboe came in with the melody, followed by strings, brass, clarinets, flutes, even a harp.

Mothers holding children swayed with the music. Faces broke into smiles and wonder. A few people started recording the flash concert on their cell phones.

The crowd has stopped mulling around; the rockets, space capsules and bi-plane hanging from the ceiling are forgotten. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” composed by the great Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by the US Air Force Band under the direction of Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor, is enough to render these museum artifacts, sophisticated as they were in their time, as just so much scrap metal.

Then come the vocals:

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright …

If you look carefully, you can see a few museum-goers wiping away tears while other faces appear close to tears. In fact, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue as you watch.

Now why is this? Why is it that, all those bystanding technological accomplishments notwithstanding, this music has the power to slip right past the intellect and, drawing from unseen wells of emotion we didn’t even know were there, summon the heart to come forth and behold something greater?

Or to phrase the question in the language of science, what is the explanation for this universal phenomenon we call joy? Or rapture? Hold that thought.

Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an atheist named Ken. A medical doctor, Ken is very intelligent and articulate. His mother had passed on a few weeks prior, and the conversation turned to his reaction to it. “I was walking down the street Tuesday,” Ken said, “by an antique shop. And I had looked for a particular kind of double-striped cranberry glass that my mother collects. It’s very rare. And every time I go by this antique shop I look to see if they’ve got any in the window. I’ve never seen it. And I realized as I walked by that I never really need to look for that — and here his voice broke away. An emotional wave had struck him, seemingly, out of nowhere, and he couldn’t finish the sentence, I never need to look for double-striped cranberry glass again…

He changed the subject and soon afterward ended the conversation. It made me want to cry for him – not so much for the loss of his mother, but for the loss of his ability to grieve the loss. He feels something very deeply, but he’s cut himself off from both the source and satisfaction of that longing. Ken has rejected belief in God for lack of evidence, yet he misses the evidence that springs from the emotional wells of his very soul.

C.S. Lewis wrote about the innate desire for something beyond. That desire is also a form of nascent knowledge. “Most people, if they had really learned to look in their hearts, would know that they do want, and acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.” The human soul was made to enjoy some objects that are “never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” He called it joy; he also called it longing. A literary critic, he even at times called it Romanticism. This desire, Lewis wrote, is distinct from others in that it is itself desirable. “To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.”

To want to have what? Look at the rest of the words of the first stanza of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” penned by Robert Bridges to be sung to the masterpiece:

Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.

Souls aspiring to do what? To soar to uncreated light.

Christmas NightTo rise up to God, to be united, or re-united, with our Maker. Why is Ken moved at the remembrance of his mother? Because God made both him and his mother for eternal relationship, and those relational bonds transcend death. Why are museum-goers moved by beautiful music? Why are we moved by beautiful music? Because God himself is beautiful, and he made us to dwell with him in glory and beauty. It’s part of the created order. We long for it, and we know it.

The tears tell us so.


A Refreshingly Old Take on Identity

In the Winter 2011 issue of Salvo, Tom Gilson writes about the reductionist interpretation of neuroscience findings:

In 2007, Scientific American reported on “Your Brain in Love,” including this wisdom:

Researchers have revealed the fonts of desire by comparing functional MRI studies of people who indicated they were experiencing passionate love, maternal love or unconditional love. Together, the regions release neuro­transmitters and other chemicals in the brain and blood that prompt greater euphoric sensations such as attraction and pleasure.4

Apparently no poet, artist, novelist, or philosopher ever knew where the fonts of desire were to be found. How could they? They didn’t have functional MRI (fMRI) machines.

There is a predictable reductionist sameness about these articles. You or I could almost write them before we read them: Brain researchers study human experience y, and discover that human experience y is nothing but some region x lighting up in our brains. Admittedly, I’m taking a rather reductionist approach of my own: I’ve reduced all this research and journalism to a neat little formula.

. . .

1. Ethics and morality reside in the brain.
2. We look in the brain, and we find regions lighting up under stimuli.
3. Therefore, ethics and morality, at their core, are probably nothing but parts of the brain responding to stimuli.

. . .

This article came to mind while I was reading a conversation between Alan Saunders, host of The Philosopher’s Zone, and John Finnis, Emeritus Professor of Law at University College Oxford and a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the States. They discuss how human beings regarded such things as the self, the mind, and free will before MRI machines were around. Excerpt from the “Shakespeare, Identity and Religion” transcript over at the Radio National website:

. . . .

Alan Saunders: But let’s turn to Aquinas, because we’re going to talk about personal identity. Can you outline his theory of personal identity?

John Finnis: Well, neither Aquinas nor Shakespeare use the term in that sense, and that’s one of the interesting things, I think, about Shakespeare, and indeed about Aquinas, that they have concepts which we know of and use ourselves with different terms. I think that’s a philosophically interesting and important point, that one can have a concept without having a term that locks onto it one-to-one. In both Aquinas and Shakespeare you find a conception of personal identity expressed in terms of other concepts; in the case of Shakespeare like the thing I am, or the self, and similarly in Aquinas you have a very, very strong conception of self-determination by free choice. That’s, I think, the master concept in Aquinas.

Alan Saunders: So…

John Finnis: One’s choices last in one’s, what we would call, character, in one’s, what we would call, identity.

Alan Saunders: So presumably I have an identity that is something to do with who I was born as, but the rest of it is my choice?

John Finnis: Yes. I’m part author of myself, and partly not author of myself, but constituted, what I am, by my birth as a member of the human species, and I have the identity I have, according to Aquinas, because of the material basis, the bodily basis, of my existence, and because that is informed and shaped and active by virtue of my human soul. So, I have this body and soul unity which is me, a human being, and that’s my nature as it’s given to me, and then there’s the nature that I…the sort of second nature, that I establish by my choices.

Alan Saunders: Returning to bodily matters, Shakespeare never loses sight, does he, of the fact that the personal identity that each of his characters has, that character has by being this living body rather than that living body?

John Finnis: No, he never does. He of course is capable of playing around with the idea of spirits, fairies and so on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he always brings us back to that bodily reality.

Alan Saunders: On ABC RN you’re with The Philosopher’s Zone and I’m talking to John Finnis, Professor of Law at Oxford and at the University of Notre Dame in the States about Shakespeare, religion and identity. John, despite one’s bodiliness, for both Aquinas and Shakespeare one can, as it were, be present to oneself, can’t one?

John Finnis: Yes, that’s an extremely important concept and dialectical, argumentative device in Aquinas. Aquinas’s controversies with the radical, partly Islamist, Aristotelians of the University of Paris are marked by his appeal to this understanding of oneself, this presence to oneself, which identifies one as oneself and not others, and not simply a fragment of some vast single soul, which was the concept of the radical Aristotelians. The idea of presence to oneself, of course, everyone knows is there in Shakespeare, in the form of the soliloquy, and you get soliloquies like the soliloquy of Richard III just before his final battle and death at Bosworth in which he talks in a remarkable way about the self and it’s his conscience in this case and his struggle with his conscience, all expressed in terms of myself.

. . . .

Friendly Debaters: Hitchens and Taunton

We are hard at work on the next issue of Salvo. Subscribers will be familiar with the “Blips” department where we offer some short notes on books and movies of interest. Also included in the Blips section is a full-page review on a book or movie we think is of particular importance.

This time for the featured Blip, Salvo contributing editor Terrell Clemmons reviews a book by Larry Taunton. You’ll have to wait to get the full report, but I did want to share this with you. I came across it while searching for more info on Taunton. Apparently, he debated the late Christopher Hitchens a number of times and the two became quite good friends. You can read what he has to say about Hitchens here:

My Take: An evangelical remembers his friend Hitchens

I first met Christopher Hitchens at the Edinburgh International Festival. We were both there for the same event, and foremost in my mind was the sort of man I would meet.

A journalist and polemicist, his reputation as a critic of religion, politics, Britain’s royal family, and, well, just about everything else was unparalleled. As an evangelical, I was certain that he would hate me.

When the expected knock came at my hotel room door, I braced for the fire-breather who surely stood on the other side of it. With trepidation, I opened it and he burst forth into my room. Wheeling on me, he began the conversation as if it was the continuance of some earlier encounter:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has effectively endorsed the adoption of Sharia law. Can you believe that? Whatever happened to a Church of England that believed in something?” He alternated between sips of his Johnnie Walker and steady tugs on a cigarette.

My eyebrows shot up. “‘Believed in something?’ Why, Christopher, you sound nostalgic for a church that actually took the Bible seriously.”

He considered me for a moment and smiled. “Indeed. Perhaps I do.”

read the full article . . .

This friendship between Hitchens and Taunton exemplifies a sentiment expressed by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Juriprudence at Princeton. HT: This quote was brought to my attention by way of a Facebook post from a friend of Salvo.

Quote of the Day from Robert P. George on friendship and civility with those whom we disagree with:

“I have always found Lincoln’s closing words of his First Inaugural Address to be profoundly moving–and true: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Our culture is divided today, just as it was in Lincon’s time, by differences over profound moral issues. Yet, even as we fight for what we believe in, as in conscience we must, with energy and determination to win, we are morally obligated to treat those with whom we disagree as we would have them treat us: with civility and respect.

This is what I try to do, though not always with perfect success, and, as you know, what I preach to my students. Deep moral differences can be gravely dangerous to social solidarity and cohesion. Those differences cannot, however, be eliminated without destroying liberty–a “cure” worse than the disease.” So we must learn to live with them and manage them. Maintaining friendships across the lines of division is, I believe, part of how we do that. The moment we think that maintaining such friendships constitutes a “sell out” of the causes to which we are dedicated, we are in deep trouble. There are very good reasons we must not “break our bonds of affection.”