The activities of users of Twitter and other social media services were recorded and analysed as part of a major project funded by the US military, in a program that covers ground similar to Facebook’s controversial experiment into how to control emotions by manipulating news feeds.
Research funded directly or indirectly by the US 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.
It should not surprise us that social media is heavily researched. It is exactly like research on our brain’s perception of body language, voice tone, eye contact, the speaker’s proximity and so on. Other research topics include our perception within groups and how it affects our emotions or decisions. I do not hear many rebel against these. They are however used by politicians to convince us or to give us a sense of confidence, same for advertisers. HR managers resort to them during job interviews to gauge certain aspects of our personalities too. It would be a shame to leave social media out of research and forgo a possibility to understand ourselves better.
It seems also natural for governments to study how misinformation spreads, how others use social media to spread their message, etc. It looks a lot like the traditional work of a Minister of Defence.
I think what shocks people is realising that algorithms are not as neutral as they thought, that they can be factored to display a certain reality and that these studies can now use real-world information instead of recreating representative study groups.