Why Facebook’s emotional manipulation study matters

facebook bad dayYou have probably heard the news that Facebook allowed an academic study to be conducted on users, the results of which were posted in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Here is why you should care.

Facebook has always been on the stickier end of the privacy policy debate. They regularly change their exact wording, but one thing has remained the same: your data is never safe. They can sell it, they can use your content posted there, and they can conduct “research”.

It was assumed that this meant market research, which pretty much every site and company does to some extent. But this time, it took on a much more insidious tone.

Facebook has basically used that single line in their privacy policy, which all of us with an account agreed to, to make us into test subjects.

Researchers from Cornell University basically manipulated user feeds with the help of the social media site to gauge the reaction to information posted on those feeds. Some were given more depressing information, some positive information.

The final data showed that emotions can be “contagious”, and passed from one user to another. Those who were negatively influenced were more likely to be depressed and post depressing things. Those who were positively influenced were more likely to be happy and post happy things.

This is highly disturbing for two reasons:

  • 1 – They did not give their consent(although Facebook claims that once you agree to use Facebook, you agree to accept data manipulation).
  • 2 – There was no control in place that would monitor truly adverse effects offline in users.

Let’s say for a minute that a user struggles with severe depression. Then they are bombarded with this information meant to trigger a negative emotional response. What impact might that have away from their keyboard? How would these researchers have kept an eye on that, or provided help if the effect was severe enough to impact their daily life?

It is an unethical and dangerous game, one that was reviewed and accepted by an ethics board at the university. One that was allowed and endorsed by the social media site. One that was done without consent from those involved in the study.

While I don’t usually support litigious behavior, that might be the only way to get under the skin of both the university and the website. My hope is that we actually see lawsuits in this case, and that it sets a precedent to keep it from happening again. Otherwise, we are on a slippery slope.

Source: PNAS

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