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What role did you play? Composite of Christos Georghiou and sdecoret/, CC BY-ND

Sarah Igo, Vanderbilt University

As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress, he’s likely wondering how his company got to the point where he must submit to public questioning. It’s worth pondering how we, the Facebook-using public, got here too.

The scandal in which Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Facebook users to craft and target advertising for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has provoked broad outrage. More helpfully, it has exposed the powerful yet perilous role of data in U.S. society.

Repugnant as its methods were, Cambridge Analytica did not create this crisis on its own. As I argue in my forthcoming book, “The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America,” big corporations (in this case, Facebook) and political interests (in this case, right-wing parties and campaigns) but also ordinary Americans (social media users, and thus likely you and me) all had a hand in it.

The allure of aggregate data

Businesses and governments have led the way. As long ago as the 1840s, credit-lending firms understood the profits to be made from customers’ financial reputations. These precursors of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion eventually became enormous clearinghouses of personal data.

For its part, the federal government, from the earliest census in 1790 to the creation of New Deal social welfare programs, has long relied on aggregate as well as individual data to distribute resources and administer benefits. For example, a person’s individual Social Security payments depend in part on changes in the overall cost of living across the country.

Police forces and national security analysts, too, gathered fingerprints and other data in the name of social control. Today, they employ some of the same methods as commercial data miners to profile criminals or terrorists, crafting ever-tighter nets of detection. State-of-the-art public safety tools include access to social media accounts, online photographs, geolocation information and cell tower data.

Probing the personal

The search for better data in the 20th century often meant delving into individuals’ most personal, intimate lives. To that end, marketers, strategists and behavioral researchers conducted increasingly sophisticated surveys, polls and focus groups. They identified effective ways to reach specific customers and voters – and often, to influence their behaviors.

In the middle of the last century, for example, motivational researchers sought psychological knowledge about consumers in the hopes of subconsciously influencing them through subliminal advertising. Those probes into consumers’ personalities and desires foreshadowed Cambridge Analytica’s pitch to commercial and political clients – using data, as its website proudly proclaims, “to change audience behavior.”

Citizens were not just unwitting victims of these schemes. People have regularly, and willingly, revealed details about themselves in the name of security, convenience, health, social connection and self-knowledge. Despite rising public concerns about privacy and data insecurity, large numbers of Americans still find benefits in releasing their data to government and commercial enterprises, whether through E-ZPasses, Fitbits or Instagram posts.

Revealing ourselves

It is perhaps particularly appropriate that the Facebook scandal bloomed from a personality test app, “This is your digital life.” For decades, human relations departments and popular magazines have urged Americans to yield private details, and harness the power of aggregate data, to better understand themselves. But in most situations, people weren’t consciously trading privacy for that knowledge.

In the linked and data-hungry internet age, however, those volunteered pieces of information take on lives of their own. Individual responses from 270,000 people on this particular test became a gateway to more data, including that belonging to another 87 million of their friends.

Today, data mining corporations, political operatives and others seek data everywhere, hoping to turn that information to their own advantage. As Cambridge Analytica’s actions revealed, those groups will use data for startling purposes – such as targeting very specific groups of voters with highly customized messages – even if it means violating the policies and professed intentions of one of the most powerful corporations on the planet.

The benefits of aggregate data help explain why it has been so difficult to enact rigorous privacy laws in the U.S. As government and corporate data-gathering efforts swelled over the last century, citizens largely accepted, without much discussion or protest, that their society would be fueled by the collection of personal information. In this sense, we have all – regular individuals, government agencies and corporations like Facebook – collaborated to create the present crisis around private data.

The ConversationBut as Zuckerberg’s summons to Washington suggests, people are beginning to grasp that Facebook’s enormous profits exploit the value of their information and come at the price of their privacy. By making the risks of this arrangement clear, Cambridge Analytica may have done some good after all.

Sarah Igo, Associate Professor of History; Associate Professor of Political Science; Associate Professor of Sociology; Associate Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Feeling So Emotional – Why We Rage About Religion on Facebook

Mona Abdel Fatil, University of Oslo

January 9, 2016

On Christmas Day, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used his website to tell the world that he was not an atheist any more. In this way, the billionaire used Facebook to express his feelings about religion, like many social media users before him.

My research shows how debates about religion on social networks bring out passionate emotions in users. I found that conservative Christians who discuss contentious issues about religion on Facebook debates often do so in emotionally charged ways.

It seems that simply being religious may sometimes trigger particular emotions and reactions to the topic of religion. But it is not only devoutly religious media users who get pulled into debating religion online or feel very strongly about it: hardcore atheists may also harbour strong emotions about religion, or rather, anti-religion. Discussing topics of faith can strike very close to home for those who strongly identify as either religious or anti-religious.

As a whole, Facebook users who passionately discuss religion online seem to be triggered by their own identity (as religious or non-religious) and an emotional involvement with the theme of religion.

Religion is increasingly viewed as highly politicised, not least due to the way that it is frequently covered in the news. Numerous studies have shown that news stories with emotional cues tend to both gain audience attention and prolong audience engagement.

It may therefore come as no surprise that online debates about religion are packed with emotional cues that evoke strong reactions from those who participate in them. This sets the stage for passionate online debates.

But is the emotional involvement necessarily intrinsic to religion?

Religion is one of the main triggers of emotional interactions online.
Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr, CC BY

Performing conflict

Of course, emotional conflicts are not new, and social media is not the only thing that makes emotions fly high and low.

Studies of the way media audiences may shape conflicts are still relatively scarce. But by taking several of the existing studies and comparing them with my own ethnographic study of a Norwegian Facebook group whose members wish to promote the visibility of Christianity in the public sphere, it is possible to discern a number of similarities in how media users “perform conflict” in emotive ways.

Across several types of conflicts in Northern Europe, media users respond in unmistakably similar ways: by claiming to be the silent majority; by making moral and normative claims about right and wrong; and resorting to blame-and-shame tactics. Even the same type of vocabulary is in circulation across many issues.

The emotionally charged way that media users engage with a variety of conflicts points to very similar mechanisms that serve to amplify and multiply conflicts, for instance, through scapegoating.

Typically, media users are highly expressive of anger, which they direct at the perceived enemy, that is, whoever is deemed responsible for an intolerable state of affairs. The anger is often set off by trigger themes and emotional cues, and leads to escalation of the conflict itself.

Triggering emotions

In Europe, religion is a common trigger theme, but so are immigration and climate change. These issues all seem to consistently fire up the public, and are more likely to induce spiralling arguments and the escalation of conflicts.

Emotional cues are particular words or phrases that serve to heighten emotional involvement. For instance, calling politicians “dictators” or stating that one’s opponents’ are “in pact with the devil” or calling them “imbeciles” can heighten the emotional stakes in a debate.

Media users regularly vent their anger in charged emotional ways.

One of my most intriguing findings was the discovery that media users employ very similar terminology to attract attention from other debaters and to incite further involvement in the debate.

Employing emotionally charged phrasing, such as calling the unwanted status quo “a tumour”, “toxic disease”, or “poison” are suitable phrases to get other social media users’ blood pressure soaring. Near identical terminology that describes a problem as “disease” and those responsible as part of “a dictatorship” or “the likes of North Korea”, is surprisingly common across all the cases of mediatized conflict I compared.

Media users also responded in very similar ways to thematically different conflicts. The one thing that all of these conflicts had in common though, was that they dealt with trigger themes. Trigger themes have the power to ignite feelings, at times explosive ones.

Raging against the machine

Not only is there an omnipresence of emotion in many online debates about religion and other contentious themes, but the presence of anger is pretty striking too. Those who rage against the machine tend to scapegoat a variety of groups, such as politicians, immigrants or Muslims.

Scholars Asimina Michaeliou and Hans-Jörg Trenz use the term “enraged fan” to describe the angriest of the angry, the ones who are livid about nearly everything. But there are other shades of angry.

In the Norwegian Facebook group, depending on who is raging – the anger is directed at politicians, all religions, Islam or Muslims, secularism, atheism and at times simply the daftness of co-debaters. Put together, all this rage leaves a pretty obvious footprint on the online discussions in the Facebook group.

Still, I believe there is a danger in focusing too much on anger. In my reading, anger may be the emotion that is most clearly expressed, but more complex emotions may well lie at the heart of the enraged utterances.

Bad religion?

Online conflicts with inherent trigger themes, such as those that tug at core religious and identity issues, tend to evoke emotional responses, which, in turn, inspire social media users to perform the conflict in ways that multiply the dispute or disputes.

My study concludes that there needs to be a trigger theme for social media users to perform in particular ways, but that the trigger theme need not be religion.

Trigger themes appear to be an integral part of the dynamics of online conflicts and inspire a heightened state of emotion among audiences, regardless of the topic. In fact, media users appear to react to conflicts in remarkably similar emotionally charged ways, whatever the subject of debate. Religion is just another trigger for the emotions we express online.

This article has been co-published with Religion going Public

The Conversation

Mona Abdel Fatil, Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of Oslo

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.