Recently there was an experiment ran by Facebook on the user base that left a bad taste in the mouth of users and others. It also raises the question of the ethical nature of using a subject group that didn’t know it was being used in the experiment.
Described as an “emotional contagion” experiment, the project—which led to a paper—saw Facebook researchers alter updates in users’ news feeds. The intent was to provoke a negative or positive reaction in users’ status updates based on very negative or very positive content. The study found that Facebook users were affected by content in their news feeds with positive content garnering more positive wall posts and negative content garnering negative posts.
The study took place for one week in 2012 and used a small focus group, but the company didn’t notify users that the experiment was being done. It appears to be legal according to Facebook’s data use policy which the researchers used as a greenlight to do the study since it was meant for internal purposes (such as research).
The results were published in the June issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.”
Facebook stood by the research in a statement sent to The Atlantic:
This research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account. We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible. A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it’s positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow. We carefully consider what research we do and have a strong internal review process. There is no unnecessary collection of people’s data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.
One of the listed researchers, Adam Kramer, wrote of the pushback regarding the study. “Our goal was never to upset anyone. I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” the post read. “In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”
Kramer would go on to state that experiment was important regarding positive news leading to negative reactions and eventually negative feeling towards visiting Facebook. He said that this focus wasn’t stated as clearly as it could’ve been in the published study.