Mass Behavioral Manipulation: Ice Bucket Challenge Edition

I bet you I could get 17 million people to dump ice on their head.

I wrote this LinkedIn post back in September 2014, and this week’s news that Facebook may have misled the entire media industry with inflated video metrics had me thinking about it.

Remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

The whole world was dumping freezing cold water over their heads and the Facebook video platform miraculously took off. My 2014 perspective seems so innocent in retrospect. I theorized that Facebook might be artificially boosting videos of the challenge to promote its video platform, where the potential for ad dollars was significantly greater, and the strategy might have come from the very top:

The first celebrity I noticed on my feed doing the challenge was Mark Zuckerberg. This was especially surprising because I can’t remember ever seeing a post from him before (and though I wish he was my friend, he’s not).

The day after Zuckerberg did it, it became a constant presence in Facebook’s top right trending bar. Every Ice Bucket post from anyone, even people whose posts I’ve never clicked on, started making it to the top of my feed. Celebrities everywhere were doing it, it went global, and the rest is history.

At the time the idea of Facebook purposefully manipulating our behavior via the algorithm seemed almost incomprehensible:

I wonder how it went down. I’m okay if Mark Zuckerberg was approached about a burgeoning trend that could get people comfortable both uploading, and experiencing, auto play video on Facebook, and could potentially do good for the world. I really hope he just saw it and thought it’d be cool to do.

I was hedging the thought that the Facebook platform would ever purposefully manipulate their algorithm to suit their business goals.

How sweet.

My 2018 image is now him with an evil laugh, turning to his inner circle as they bet on whether he could get all these “dumb f**cks” dumping ice on their heads.

Again, from the post:

Can Facebook completely control what enters our feed and end up creating trends that help further their long-term commercial needs? Was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge artificially promoted by Facebook to encourage people to upload video and get us all comfortable with autoplay for eventually lucrative video ads?

The cynical MBA in me almost accepts this as a reality, but the longtime, satisfied Facebook user just can’t get comfortable with that notion. It would kill the entire utility of the platform.

How sweet.

Of course they would manipulate the algorithm to boost the Ice Bucket challenge. That’s the entire business model. I vividly remember a friend commenting, “So what if they’re manipulating us? The challenge raised millions for ALS, that’s a good thing.”

As we sit in 2018, it’s fascinating to think back to the mainstream 2014 perception of mass behavioral manipulation via digital platforms. I lean cynical, and yet even I was near incredulous at the thought that our favorite app would convince tens of millions of people to dump ice water on their heads so they could capture an epochal media industry shift.

In a way, this captures so much of what we’ve come to learn as Silicon Valley 101. Large tech companies claiming to do good for the world as they solidified their monopolistic positioning. Embedding the ability to manipulate as a core feature of the product for these short-term ends, without paying any heed to the larger potential negative consequences.

This playbook marches on. Remember back in June (right after Cambridge Analytica), there was that campaign looking to raise just $1,500 for helping families separated at the border. Mark Zuckerberg posted on June 19th to use Facebook’s new Donate feature and conveniently the campaign ending up raising $20 million. Concerted mass behavioral manipulation to push a new feature under the auspices of charity. This time we can add “distracting from scandal” to the laundry list of benefits.

It was just a few years ago that we didn’t think the algorithms had any real power over us. How sweet.

P.S. I’ll also leave you with the last line from the 2014 piece. This one really got me:

The only thing I can take away with certainty is I pray that Twitter doesn’t end killing it’s reverse chronological timeline.



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