US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Creepy.” “Irresponsible.” “A blatant violation of trust.” “A damn disrespectful and dangerous choice.”

The Facebook emotional contagion experiment has drawn a range of reactions, but over the past week a general consensus has emerged: the social networking site engaged in a serious transgression against users. The backlash, Adrienne LaFrance at the Atlantic explained, “seems tied directly to the sense that Facebook manipulated people — used them as guinea pigs — without their knowledge, and in a setting where that kind of manipulation feels intimate.”

While the study showed Facebook’s content manipulation had only a tiny effect — it swayed users to create content that was .1 percent happier or sadder — people immediately worried about more far-reaching consequences. Did the study contribute to suicide? Has the company been running other experiments it hasn’t disclosed? Could Facebook use its manipulative powers to change public policy or sway an election?

These worries stem in part from long-standing concerns about Facebook’s business practices, particularly its cavalier attitude toward users’ privacy. But they also arise from a much broader set of fears about Big Data, technology, and our growing sense that we don’t have as much control over our lives — or our minds — as we’d like.

Though these seem like thoroughly modern anxieties, they’re ones Americans have dealt with before. In 1957, Vance Packard published "The Hidden Persuaders," which explored Madison Avenue’s use of psychology to convince the unwitting masses to buy more consumer goods. The book rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists, where it stayed for months. By 1975 three million copies of "The Hidden Persuaders" had been sold. Clearly, Packard had struck a chord.

The topics Packard covered, particularly motivational research and subliminal advertising, were not new to the reading public. As early as 1955 the New York Times had written approvingly about Ernest Dichter’s application of psychology to advertising. “Department stores can’t keep a psychologist at the door to analyze every customer as she walks in,” the Times lamented, but researchers were starting to bring a Freudian touch to the shopping experience.

The success of "The Hidden Persuaders" lay in its argument, not its novelty. The use of motivational research in advertising sparked little reaction until Packard presented it as intrusive and manipulative. Citing George Orwell, Packard portrayed a world in which “depth manipulators” burrowed into people’s minds and persuaded them to act against their natural desires and values in order to boost sales. It was an image of advertising that tapped into broad cultural fears of a mass society conditioned for conformity and bereft of authenticity.

In its exploration of subliminal advertising, "The Hidden Persuaders" also accessed Cold War fears of brainwashing. Brainwashing, which entered the lexicon in 1951, became a national obsession after the Army issued a 1955 report on the manipulation of American prisoners of war in Korea. Yet Packard warned the greatest threat of brainwashing came not from communists but from corporations, who hire advertising firms that “try to invade the privacy of our minds.” In his closing sentences, he insisted that such privacy must be safeguarded. “It is this right to privacy in our minds – privacy to be either rational or irrational – that I believe we must strive to protect.”

Thanks to Packard’s work, Americans today consider themselves savvy consumers of advertising. We know businesses attempt to manipulate our emotions and decision-making through advertising, and we accept it as part of modern consumer culture. The reaction to Facebook’s manipulations reveals how differently we treat social media companies. As my colleague Robert Schlesinger points out, while companies like Facebook “are fundamentally data collection enterprises that turn a profit by monetizing that data,” we like to see them as “inherently benevolent.” Little wonder, then, that news of the emotional contagion experiment sparked such a backlash.

Yet if the past is any indication, the outrage won’t last long. The forms of manipulation by advertisers Packard warned about have become perfectly acceptable. We have long since handed over the “privacy of our minds” to corporations, believing (rightly or wrongly) that our cynicism protects us from the grossest forms of manipulation. Chances are we’ll do the same with social media, drolly deriding the puppet masters while doing nothing to cut the strings.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report