How Facebook and US Military Manipulate Our Data

Written by David Michaelis

The dark net is about the faceless agencies. Facebook operates in full light, but is ethically questionable. They manipulate data, just like the NSA gathers it. How different are the NSA and Facebook, and where will it lead? — Facebook and the U.S. military, it seems, share a solid commonality: They both manipulate our data. While much U.S. government subterfuge occurs on the dark net — NSA plunging into TOR, for instance — the corporate community remains in the “bright net” of today’s visible web. Looking at the four pillars of the official web — Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft — it becomes clear that their actions are not so different than their dark net counterparts.

Dark Net

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The Four “Bright Net” Pillars

These four tech institutions monopolize a huge area of our on- and off-line activity. They are Black Box corporate powers who can both collect data and, according to recent Facebook revelations, manipulate our behavior. They are supposed to be the good guys, those who operate under the law and in the light, never stooping to, for instance, an anonymous Bitcoin transaction.

My gripe with this? The distinction between a dark net and a bright one misleads us into believing these Nasdaq-traded companies are accountable, unlike those under the veil, and will “not do evil.” But just because something is “legal” does not mean it is right. Or even legal, for that matter.

These pillars have turned our lives into databases in the belief  “that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships,” as Jaron Lanier wrote in “You Are Not A Gadget.”

Many universities have jumped into this pool of data with great enthusiasm. Ethical choices were not an issue as data manipulation passed their collective academic judgement, which enabled a secret faceless data team at Facebook, as well as the universities who aid and conduct such research. The faceless, secretive NSA and the faceless, secretive Facebook are becoming one unaccountable matrix.

Who is More Sinister: NSA or Facebook?

NSA Dark Net

Image credit: ACLU-NSA Research

The question of fear becomes one of comparison: Do you fear those who collect information about you, or those who use your data to manipulate your behavior? The NSA, of course, does not try to make you vote for Obama or buy a new gadget — their purpose is more centered.

As a journalist who worked in Israel, Russia, and the USA, I fully know I have files under the Mossad, KGB (FSA) and others. But they know that I know — we are each aware of my actions. My newsfeed on Facebook, though, lacks transparency. It is unclear if my (meta) data is used to manipulate my choices. My lifestyle may be known, broadcast even, but it should still be off limits to secretive data teams, and not used to manipulate me.

Those working in the shadows are not accountable and not transparent, despite their Nasdaq-company front. Facebook needs to learn from the NYT, who employ an ombudsperson that receives criticism from the public, investigates discrepancies and reports back to the company and public.

As Judith Hurwitz wrote in HBR:

How hard will it be for Facebook to stop acting like a black box? This emerging public company will have to step up its ability to build non-automated relationships with constituents — consumers, advertisers, and partners. It needs to make peace with the security community and learn to be a good citizen that treats everyone with respect.”

In actionable competition, the U.S. military also has a hand in the manipulation game. The Guardian uncovered that:

Research funded directly or indirectly by the U.S. Department of Defense’s military research department, known as Darpa, has involved users of some of the internet’s largest destinations, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Kickstarter, for studies of social connections and how messages spread.

Several of the DoD-funded studies went further than merely monitoring what users were communicating on their own, instead messaging unwitting participants in order to track and study how they responded.”

Content is King

All four giants are actually content companies who need to follow ethical rules. Content advertising is now a common creative tool. Jeff Stone reports:

Some media executives and Wall Street dealmakers say they wouldn’t be surprised to see a company such as Apple, Google, or Amazon eventually jumping into the bidding for a media company … All are pursuing ambitions in streaming TV from different angles. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who is also expected to be at Sun Valley, lately has been muscling into TV territory.”

We as consumers need to learn that,

The power that corporations like Google and Facebook have to influence the digital content you consume means that you shouldn’t necessarily depend on them to surface the things you need to know.”

As a consumer and citizen, you need to be cyber and news literate to notice these manipulations. You must alert your network and those companies you use, explaining the ways in which you feel gamed. If the four pillars do not want to become the real dark net, they better rethink their rules of governance. Stop gaming us, and try to build trust with us.

For, I’m David Michaelis.

Based in Australia, David Michaelis is a world-renowned international journalist and founder of Link Tv. At, he covers the global beat, focusing on politics and other international topics of note for our readers in a variety of forums. Email him at