Facebook’s Grand Experiment #Fail or….?

should we get out the tin hats?First a little backstory on this in case you’ve had your head in the sand for a week or so.

A research paper released at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Facebook’s data scientists tells us they have been manipulating user’s newsfeeds to see if negative or positive emotions are as contagious on social networks as they are in real life. Basically they targeted users and manipulated their Facebook newsfeed to show more of either positive or negative emotions to see if exposure to those emotions changed their own posting behaviors. Read the abstract of their testing here.

Their summary

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

Now my first reaction is, well, bullshit. Posts were determined to be positive or negative based on the use of certain words signifying an emotion. This kind of “sentiment” analysis has never been terribly accurate. Take me for example. I am fairly sarcastic by nature on Facebook and am likely to say things like “I hate it when ___ happens” when I actually love it. Or “Oh, don’t you JUST LOVE missing your bus and having to walk 5 miles?” when actually I hate it.

Seth Grimes wrote a post about measuring sentiment here that explains this in detail. Of course we can expect Facebook’s team to have more advanced measurement and a whole lot more data than the average company, but it’s still an issue. (Don’t you hate it?)

Enough about the backstory

I could go on for days, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Facebook used us as test subjects without permission and this goes way beyond testing ad copy to see if it works. It’s more advanced and insidious than that. This is manipulating the emotions of people without controls. Were some of those people moved to do bad things? Were some more depressed? If one assumes that the emotions of Facebook are roughly equivalent to that of the United States, 1 in 17 have serious mental disorders according to this NIH post. Unless Facebook had algorithms to take that into account they could have caused harm here.

Did they consider the public reaction to this news? Nah, they were so proud of themselves they wrote and presented a paper on it. Adam Kramer, one of the authors defended it on Facebook saying: “the result was that people produced an average of one fewer emotional word, per thousand words, over the following week.”. Oh, well, OK then (I’m being sarcastic again.)

Marc AndreessonResponse to the news about this project has been varied. From Facebook board member Marc Andreessen simply suggesting we either : a) get over it or b) don’t use Facebook in a discussion about it on Twitter and suggested it was no different than A&B testing an ad, to Pando Daily saying the company is more powerful and un-ethical than we thought.

Even though the Wall St Journal posted a commentary on the awesome power of Facebook, it certainly didn’t hurt their stock prices.

I asked a few of my social media friends about it.

Facebook expert John Haydon said: “Despite the backlash regarding the ethics behind their “experiment”, users will not leave Facebook because that’s where all their friends are. Lawyers, internet activists and politicians will probably make a big hoo-ha about this, but most normals will soon forget that it even happened.

I have to agree that the majority of people will stay on and after the dust settles forget it ever happened. Is that OK?

Beth Kanter wasn’t too surprised either: “It feels creepy that Facebook is trying to manipulate our emotions and understand how to keep us addicted as users. But given Facebook’a track record, no surprise there. Should nonprofits leave? If this PR crisis is like the others, it will blow over and we’ll go back to using Facebook and the people that nonprofits want to reach will too. Maybe we will have a little bit more awareness about how FB is manipulating us. I keep wishing that the pr crisis will blow up and FB will start a nonprofit ad grant program to show its good side.

Yeah, Facebook, you’re gonna have to come up with something good this time. I’m already using Google+ more (no it’s NOT dead). That said, SocialBakers reports that brands are starting to see engagement on the rise on their Facebook pages. Should we wait around and see?

Oh, and in case you’re frantically going back through your posts to see if you were targeted, this study was done in 2012. We all slept right through it.

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  • Personally and from a user standpoint it’s a fail in my opinion. BUT that being said, I hear all the grumbling but I don’t see those people deleting their profiles SO Facebook is winning. It’s just like the privacy issues, manipulate and violate away, people keep liking and posting and grumbling…

  • RandyBowden

    Facebook has long run social experiments on the more than 800 million who log in daily, however what many feared is now a reality. Facebook has placed us each into a lab rat cage.

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