Backbytes: Will Facebook make lab rats of us all?

By Backbytes
01 Jul 2014 View Comments
Scientists working in a chemistry lab

It's long been argued that tabloid newspapers unfairly influence the outcome of elections. But what about the even smaller handful of internet companies that rule people's lives these days?

On the one hand, Google is making a big play to scoop up not just data about our online habits - and storing it all in an NSA-friendly jurisdiction - but also data from our homes, phones, cars, where we go, what we do and about such sensitive subjects as our health.

Further reading

Facebook, meanwhile, is not far behind and has even conducted experiments to see whether it could actively influence people's behaviour. In 2012, it admits, 700,000 English-speaking Facebook users were unknowingly enrolled in a little experiment to see what impact fiddling with their Facebook news feed might have - more emotional words here, different news there.

It followed an experiment during a US election that found that, yes, it could influence people to vote by showing certain users where their local polling station is, or publicising which of their friends had already voted.

Given that Google, Facebook, Twitter and others probably know more about our political views than almost anyone or anything else on Earth (apart from, perhaps, the NSA and GCHQ), how soon before they become more subtle versions of the Daily Mail, or encouraging only people likely to vote for candidates that support their interests?

Google CEO Larry Page, meanwhile, reckons we should all just chill out about trying to keep our data private, for the greater good. Given that his company holds the contract from the Ministry of Truth to run the Records Department, he would say that, wouldn't he?

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