The Pentagon January 2008.jpg

The highly controversial and possibly illegal Facebook experiment on mood manipulation is reportedly connected to the Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative. The Minerva Initiative tries to model tipping points for social unrest and is funded directly by the Pentagon as well as indirectly through the National Science Foundation. The project is supposed to help improve relations between the Department of Defense as well as help military planning.

One of the researchers involved with the Facebook experiment was Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University who is funded through the Minvera Initiative to study the contagion of ideas.

This collaboration between Facebook and the Department of Defense comes after recent revelations of Facebook’s willing cooperation in the NSA’s PRISM program which handed user information over to the government.

In the official credits for the study conducted by Facebook you’ll find Jeffrey T. Hancock from Cornell University. If you go to the Minerva initiative website you’ll find that Jeffery Hancock received funding from the Department of Defense for a study called “Cornell: Modeling Discourse and Social Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes”. If you go to the project site for that study you’ll find a visualization program that models the spread of beliefs and disease.

Cornell University is currently being funded for another DoD study right now called “Cornell: Tracking Critical-Mass Outbreaks in Social Contagions” (you’ll find the description for this project on the Minerva Initiative’s funding page). The Department of Defense’s investment in the mechanics of psychological contagion and Facebook’s assistance, have some very serious implications, particularly when placed in context with other scandals which have broken in the past two years.

Given that the research was published and received federal funding it may have broke laws concerning informed consent. The government in the UK is reportedly looking into whether the experiment violated UK data-protection laws.

Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg just conceded that the study was “poorly communicated” even though one of Facebook’s lawyers tried briefly to defend it as a plan to promote “customer service.” Whether there will be any investigation in the US into Facebook’s conduct is unknown.