Date of Award
John P. Casey, Ph.D.
This paper examines how data mining and microtargeting on Facebook undermine its users’ autonomy, that is their capacity to make their own free and deliberative choices. Facebook profiles a user by creating a psychological model of their preferences (beliefs and values). It then frames the content that appears in a user's News Feed on the basis of this model and thus shapes their preferences. This shaping of preferences has implications for the user’s autonomy. To show this I will apply John Christman’s conception of autonomy that focuses on how external covert influence can interfere with a user’s independent process of preference formation. I will prove that Facebook’s model of microtargeting users with curated and restricted options of content can make them adapt their preference. Adaption of preference due to external manipulation outside of a user’s control undermines their autonomy. In November 2016 Donald Trump won the United States Presidential election. Partially with the help of Cambridge Analytica (British consultancy firm) and Facebook’s use of computational methods to assess large data sets about voters and create their psychological profile to target them with political ads. The effective microtargeting strategy relied on restricting the content a user could consider for forming their preference. If a user cannot form their preference with complete control over what options to consider, then that undermines their ability to reason autonomously.
Sharif, Armina, "This Is Your Brain on Facebook: An Analytical Approach to Social Media and Autonomy" (2021). University Honors Program Senior Projects. 21.