In mid-June 2014, American researchers quietly published the results of a 2012 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). The article is linked here: Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks
Most of us laymen would read the title of that article and decide to “wait for the movie” rather than read it. But this was no ordinary study: it was an experiment involving almost 700,000 Facebook users without their knowledge or informed consent. Researchers studied how the users’ emotional states could be altered by changes in Facebook news feeds, “the main stream of status updates and photos seen when Facebook is first opened.” After studying the collected data, researchers concluded that there was some evidence of “emotional contagion,” the transfer of positive and negative emotions among people and that “given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook, even small effects can have large aggregated consequences.”
The study’s publication created quite a commotion in the internet world and beyond. British and Irish (but not the U.S.?) watchdog agencies are investigating possible data-protection violations and internet users are railing against the social media giant. The study was attacked as: unethical, because participants were not informed about the study’s specifics or given the ability to opt out of the study; and unscientific, because the researchers selected “positive” and “negative” words to arbitrarily gauge users’ moods and because the study cannot be replicated to be tested by other scientists.
Facebook’s spokesperson stated, “The study was done with appropriate protections for people’s information and we are happy to answer any questions regulators may have.” Also, the lead researcher stated, “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.” The upshot is that Facebook supposedly conducted this study in order to improve its services.
Facebook’s assurances and explanations have done little to calm the anxiety and anger over the mass manipulation of unknowing subjects by the world’s largest social media provider. Indeed, the only way we discovered the study was through its publication. It makes one speculate about other manipulations Facebook may use that we never hear about simply because they remain unpublished.
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