Category Archives: Newspaper columns

As bad as Facebook’s experiment on its members seems, the reality was worse

What’s the worst thing about the news that Facebook hosted what The Atlantic aptly called a “secret mood manipulation experiment,” conducted on 689,000 unwitting members of its network? That’s hard to say. There’s so much bad to choose from.

First, the nature of the experiment: It was cruel. Researchers from Facebook itself, Cornell, and University of California, San Francisco, were looking into whether emotional states could be spread via news shared by online media. That means, without direct personal contact.

The vehicle for this “emotional contagion” was to be Facebook’s News Feed: By tinkering with the feed, researchers altered the balance of positive and negative items people were exposed to. Then, by peeking at the messages that those same people subsequently posted—some 3 million during the week in January 2012 when the experiment was conducted—and categorizing them as positive or negative, the researchers could determine to what degree the members had been influenced.

Not surprisingly, researchers found what they called “experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”

Now, this isn’t a very nice thing to do to people—deliberately goad them into an emotional response just to show that you can. Worse still, half of the lab rats in this exercise were given an overabundance not of joyous news to make them happy, but of stories featuring dreary, gloomy, negative things. That feels very much like what qualifies as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

(Finding evidence that people share such misery, that it constitutes a “contagion,” apparently interests scholars. Why? I can’t imagine. Everybody’s been saddened by dismal news and told others about it. But some social scientists build careers by confirming the obvious.)

Second, not only was this cruel, it was deceptive. The whole appeal of Facebook’s News Feed is that it’s supposed to constitute a filtered selection of news that has been endorsed by the member’s community of “friends.” It’s meant to be what the people you care about seem to care about.

This feed wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t what your friends said was worth knowing. If you attached importance to it because you believed your network of like-minded souls had commended it to your attention, you were being tricked. Other considerations trumped peer interest (and one can only wonder how often Facebook does that.)

So not only was the feed surreptitiously manipulated, it was represented fraudulently.

Third, this whole sham was visited on a vast population of trusting strangers who didn’t know they were being used as subjects in an experiment.

That ignorance matters. By and large, scientific research protocols have, as a core ethical tenet, the notion of informed consent: Participants should be fully aware they’re taking part in an experiment, know about potential risks to themselves or others and, of course, have the ability to opt out.

True, some experiments can’t work without deception. A famous example was Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s controversial work on obedience from the early ‘60s.

There, the experiment subjects were outright lied to. They were told they’d be helping run a test of learning and memory by administering electric shocks to people based on how well the respondents handled a set of questions.

That wasn’t what was happening. Instead, it was the helpers who were the subjects of the experiment, and what being tested was their willingness to follow directions from researchers in lab coats, who were telling them to ignore the screams from what were actually paid actors next door.

Milgram’s work had the unmistakable potential of traumatizing participants, who had signed on as paid laboratory aides, without expecting to have their values and moral courage put to the test, and some of whom purportedly left distraught that they had caused real pain to faceless strangers.

Milgram claimed to have “dehoaxed” his subjects by exposing the fraud to them after the sessions in which they participated, as American Psychological Association guidelines prescribe. That’s something nobody connected with the Facebook chicanery has even asserted.

Moreover, an even more fundamental APA recommendation—that experiment deceit be “justified by the study’s significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value”—has even less bearing on this affair.

Indeed, that may be the most disturbing element of the Facebook plunge into mass fraud: What it was all for, and how casually it apparently was undertaken.

I’m not surprised that behavioral scientists seek quantitative support for propositions that ordinary folk regard as self-evident. Is anybody without a Ph.D. surprised to learn that depressing news depresses people?

But Facebook isn’t in the business of expanding the frontiers of social knowledge, however loosely they’re defined. It’s in the business of expanding its business, and the takeaway from this affair is the evidence of how audaciously the Facebook brass define its license to target, trick, and tweak the people who trust the network to which millions of them devote such staggering time and intellectual energy.

You have to wonder, if Facebook would hand over nearly 700,000 members to be inveigled into such a membrane-thin scientific cause, what else it’s cavalierly and routinely doing to poke, prod and harvest that same population of users for purposes closer to its real business purposes.

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Transgender suicide ignites media ethics firestorm

An ethical firestorm has flared up over an expose that ran last month in Grantland, a sports and popular culture site affiliated with ESPN, on the unlikely subject of a new golf club and the woman who invented it.

As much as any media ethics matter of recent years, the furor touched off by “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” raises compelling questions about whether conventional journalistic practices are nasty, brutish and indefensible—questions raised by an online community of newspeople who have a strikingly different ethic in mind.

The Grantland article was the product of an eight-month inquiry into Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V, who spent seven years developing an aerodynamically innovative putter that some respected golfers believed materially improved their games. The possibility loomed of a major technological advance—and a business triumph—in a sport that reveres its toys.

But the Grantland writer, Caleb Hannan, discovered serious fabrications in Dr. V’s academic and professional resume: She didn’t, as claimed, have degrees from MIT and Wharton; she wasn’t related to the Vanderbilt dynasty; she probably didn’t help develop the Stealth bomber. Apparently, she had been an auto mechanic, albeit a remarkably gifted one.

Then, Hannan’s background checks took an unexpected turn. While trying to figure out why he could find no trace of Dr. V before 2000, he learned she was transgender, and had lived until then—and had married twice—under the male name she was born with. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself,” he wrote.

That story ended some weeks after Dr. V’s last, angry, email communication with Hannan, when in late October she killed herself.  In January the story was published.

It’s unclear what pushed her to suicide—fear that she’d be exposed as transgender, the lies in her resume, or the demons that many transgender people wrestle with, which is why they attempt suicide at rates far greater than the general population. (She tried before.)

But the transgender element is what provoked furious comment after the story was published—and it’s what challenges most frontally cherished practices of textbook journalism.

Traditionally, information bearing on the capacities, character, stability and credibility of an entrepreneur would be considered fair game for a reporter, who Continue reading

Why news organizations need to credit each other

In an unusual dust-up, the top editor of the Washington Post has complained to The New York Times that it failed to credit the Post for work that preceded, and nourished, important stories that the Times later ran. Why this should matter to you is worth exploring.

The Post stories, executive editor Martin Baron wrote to  Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, included significant works of enterprise journalism—among them disclosures about the National Security Agency seeding private computers with cyberattack capabilities, and unreported details from the scandal enveloping Virginia’s former governor. The Times did stories on both without indicating the debt it owed to work that the Post had already published.

The Post wasn’t the only news organization whose work The Times helped itself to, according to its public editor, whose job it is to investigate and respond to concerns about Times journalism.  McClatchy News’ Washington bureau found material it had unearthed about crude oil spillage in rail accidents was incorporated into Times stories, without a salute. (The Times later acknowledged its error.)

Now, it’s ironic to see The New York Times criticized for using the work of other outfits, since its own journalism is routinely and unapologetically ripped off by news organizations nationwide, indeed worldwide.

The Times remains, even in the digital age, far and away the mightiest influence on this country’s news agenda, and editors everywhere quietly take their bearings from the disclosures and priorities reflected in its stories and its lineup. A considerable slice of the U.S. news industry spends a considerable slice of its time trying to either match, exceed, localize, or explore the implications of The Times’ reporting—generally without any credit to The Times given or, I imagine, expected.

So when it comes to unacknowledged takings, The Times is much more often pillaged than pillager. But the issue Marty Baron raised is, I think, an important one, and one that’s only poorly addressed in contemporary journalism protocols and codes of practice.

True, if you’re not a journalist, you’ll be tempted to view this scrap as little more than dueling vanities. But what’s at issue here goes beyond pique, it’s the overall transparency of the news process—the way that significant information comes to light—and that’s not a trivial thing.

I suppose it matters less when the news organization whose enterprise was filched is The Washington Post, a great outfit whose reputation and reach remain unimpaired. Its editors may have been miffed, but The Post was hardly injured by what The Times failed to do.

The obligation to acknowledge previous work is more consequential if, say, the work is done by a tiny news site that ferrets out a hard-to-get scoop. If you, as a reader who sees that story only after it’s redone by a larger competitor, knew where it originated, you might want to pay attention to the upstart site. You Continue reading

Edward Snowden deserves a stronger defense than the media are offering

The news media’s silence while some of their boldest sources are prosecuted or jailed is something I’ve been protesting for some time, so naturally I was pleased when The New York Times, in an eloquent editorial on New Year’s Day, urged the White House to show leniency toward Edward Snowden, the former contract worker for the National Security Agency, whose leaks continue to expose the NSA’s monumental, intrusive and illegal monitoring of civilian communications here and abroad.

The Times recounted the broad impact of Snowden’s defiance, including widespread outrage, critical court rulings, internal investigations and even a grudging nod from the White House. President Obama nonetheless invited him to return from asylum in Russia to face whatever justice the administration is currently offering, the president apparently hoping that Snowden wasn’t paying attention when fellow whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, having shared similarly dirty laundry via Wikileaks, was manhandled and held in solitary for nearly a year and finally sentenced to 35 years by a military tribunal.

Who could turn that down?

The Times argued that Snowden deserves either clemency or some minimum-punishment plea bargain, and concluded: “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”

Now, The Times never said much on Manning’s behalf. Nor has it opined in favor of Manning’s helper, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who’s languishing in an ersatz house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

For his part Assange is ignored, when he’s not reviled, by the same news organizations he fed truthful and explosive information. The received wisdom among elite media, near as I can tell, is that he’s a weirdo and an egomaniac and therefore earned his current captivity, ensured by a months-long police siege outside the embassy in Knightsbridge that’s supposedly intended to get him to return to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, murky stuff with which he has never been charged.

The police response is grossly disproportionate and reflects far more serious concerns than a busted condom, but the media prefer to look the other way.

So amid this practice of source abandonment, The Times’ plea is welcome.

But in several regards, the pro-Snowden case is troubling. It doesn’t go nearly far enough toward ensuring a fair shake for whistle-blowers with vital stories to tell.

First, the idea that Snowden should get a break because his “disclosures have Continue reading

Coverage of ‘moral injury’ among U.S. vets masks disregard of civilian war suffering

Just before Christmas I heard a report on public radio concerning “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. That’s the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with core values—brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing children.

A push is on to recognize moral injury as a distinct condition within Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and treat it with customized interventions.  The pain that the soldier in the report suffered, after he and his buddies wiped out an Iraqi family of five whose car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint, needs a different label and more calibrated care than other post-combat miseries that afflict soldiers.

My reaction to this account was layered. I was heartened by the sensitivity and ingenuity mental health professionals were bringing to healing the thousands of U.S. military scarred by their service in these wars.

I was also impressed, once again, by how serious the news media’s coverage has been of today’s veterans. As early as 2007 conditions in the Army’s flagship Walter Reed Hospital prompted Pulitzer-winning coverage by The Washington Post. The problems of brain injury, suicide rates, prosthetics, unemployment, psychological impairment, and the adequacy of the Veterans Administration’s response, continue to get sustained, compassionate news treatment unlike any that Vietnam-era veterans ever saw.

That’s all for the good.

But there was also something disturbing about how this report on moral injury among our soldiers exemplified this country’s boundless capacity for self-absorption. It comes amid a gaping absence of media attention to the horrendous damage suffered by others in the same wars. Continue reading