The recent kerfuffle surrounding Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment has produced a lot of discussion in tech social media and academic circles about ethics, the IRB, and the ability of a company to engage in this kind of experimental manipulation.
As several people have pointed out, companies are engaged in this kind of manipulation all the time. The practice of A/B testing websites and various news content is common and pervasive. Facebook is (and probably has been for quite some time) constantly changing which parts of the site you see to maximize clicks for their advertisers. Their goal is ultimately profit.
Bringing this back to movements, I see a parallel discussion occurring within movement circles, especially ones which are tech-oriented. Many movements, especially ones with more radical aims, often discuss whether to engage in social media mobilizing or whether to avoid it altogether. These activists generally recognize that mobilizing efforts via popular social media can be effective. The tension is that these social media sites are not in the business of supporting movements — they’re companies. They’re oriented towards profit. Moreover, many of these social media companies aid in state surveillance, either by being complicit in a PRISM-style program like we’ve had in the United States, or simply by making mobilizing plans available to everyone (it’s not that activists are unaware of this fact either — in my interviews with activists in Egypt, they talked about how social media channels were actually used in misdirection of police while alternative channels were used for publicizing meeting points during the first days of the 2011 revolution).
Radical tech activists have tried to set up a number of alternative sites for mobilization. Groups like the May 1st Collective and riseup.net have made it a point to build alternative networks for their organizations, and projects like Diaspora* have sought to break the centralization of social media sites altogether. But social media sites don’t work when there’s no people on them, and the people who use these alternative sites are probably already involved in these movements. Use of these alternatives sometimes requires a high level of technical competence and have a steep learning curve, so if you’re not already committed, then why bother? There’s no use preaching to the choir unless the explicit purpose is coordination of disciplined cadres. But in general, if the purpose is mobilizing people against particular targets, movements need to widen their bases and to get as much press as possible.
How do activists negotiate and reconcile these two positions? From what I can tell, not much social movement literature on movements and technology explores this. Social media is a tool, for sure. But tools have limitations, especially tools which are, in the end, at odds with activists’ moral worldviews. Activists have to wrangle with the morality of using them. There’s plenty of research to be done here.