Facebook is in the headlines again, ever since it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a London-based political consulting firm, was able to harvest personal data of millions of Facebook's users and sell it to clients, in the hopes of giving those clients a leg up in their campaigns. Among other things, Cambridge Analytica aimed to help clients identify the emotional triggers of voters, so they could motivate those voters to act.

But what has many outraged is that of the tens of millions of people whose profiles were accessed and mined, most had no idea what was happening.

According to a statement from Mark Zuckerberg (yes, on Facebook), in 2013 around 300,000 people willingly shared their data through an app designed by a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan. But because of the way Facebook worked at the time, Kogan was granted access to tens of millions of those users' friends' data, as well--without those friends ever knowing the data was shared.

You could say we should have seen this coming, because of the sheer scale at which Facebook operates. According to Statista, Facebook had 2.2 billion monthly active users as of the fourth quarter of 2017. It's difficult to maintain control over a platform of that size, and it was only a matter of time before others would try to exploit this resource. In recent times, Facebook has indeed come under fire, repeatedly--not only for its own manipulation of users' emotions, but also for contributing to others' efforts to do the same, on a much greater scale.

I write a lot about the positive aspects of emotional intelligence, the ability to identify emotions, to recognize their powerful effects, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior. Emotional intelligence includes the ability to influence--to evoke strong emotions in others, with a view to persuading or motivating them.

But what if individuals use their knowledge of emotions to gain more power for themselves or to gather support for a suspect cause? What if they use their ability to express (or disguise) emotions in an attempt to manipulate others?

This is what we call the "dark side" of emotional intelligence: using one's knowledge of emotions to strategically achieve self-serving goals, with little or no concern for others. Much as a person possessing a brilliant intellect could become an accomplished detective or a criminal mastermind, one with a superior "EQ" has a choice between two very different paths.

The mid-20th century showed us a worst-case scenario of this dark side, when Adolf Hitler steadily climbed Germany's political ladder, before leading his country into World War II and subsequently orchestrating one of the largest genocides in history. A gifted orator, Hitler spoke with confidence and charisma, able to coax his followers into a fervor. He was able to tap into the negative emotions of fear, anger, and resentment and used these to gain support from the masses.

Hitler's ability to evoke, intensify, and even manipulate the emotions of others highlights a harsh and important reality:

Emotional intelligence can be used for both good and evil.

Now, can you imagine what Hitler would have done with access to Facebook data on tens of millions of people?

Protect yourself

What can you do to protect yourself and others from the potentially harmful effects of social media, and from the dark side of emotional intelligence?

First, it's important to realize that social media apps and websites like Facebook are powerful tools--and that they're potentially dangerous. Like a sharp knife that can be used either to prepare food or to injure another person, social media can be used to help or harm you.

Recognizing the power such platforms have to provide insights into (or even to influence) your behavior, you may decide to spend less time using them, or limit the access they have to your personal data. Also, be careful not to willingly share private information; remember, if your profile is public, posting something on social media is akin to putting it on the front page of the newspaper.

But, in addition to learning to use social media wisely, you must learn to deal effectively with others' attempts to influence you.

How so?

Here is where your own emotional intelligence comes into play. For example, social awareness--your capacity to accurately perceive others' abilities to manage emotions--can serve as a self-defense mechanism, a type of "emotional alarm system" that alerts you to the fact that someone is attempting to manipulate your feelings, to get you to act in a way that is not in your best interests or that conflicts with your values and principles. (I explore these tactics and how to protect yourself from them in my forthcoming book, EQ, Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.) 

To be persuaded, motivated, and influenced by others can be a good thing--as long as it results in behavior that is consistent with your values. If it doesn't, be careful as to the motive of the persons doing the influencing. With practice, you'll continually build both self- and social awareness, and you'll gain greater control over your thoughts and actions. Doing so will help keep you from becoming a slave to your feelings, even if a skilled manipulator works hard to exploit you.

Above all, remember: To combat sinister uses of emotional intelligence, you must work to increase your own.