It’s no secret that social networks collect user data for advertising and improvements but how would you feel if your data was used in a social media experiment, without your knowledge?
Over the weekend, the news broke that Facebook carried out a large-scale psychology study in secret, to discover how people respond to positive and negative messages. Nearly 700,000 Facebook users took part, with not a single one aware that their behaviour on the network was being analysed.
The experiment took place over the period of a week in 2012. It was conducted by manipulating the content in user news feeds, to display mostly positive or negative posts. User response was then monitored to see whether exposure to the attitude of their friends would change their own posting behaviours.
The findings were as expected. Users who saw more positive stories in their feeds were more likely to write a positive post, and vice versa.
The report has been published online by the PNAS journal, and states: “These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”
Although the secretive nature of the experiment seems questionable, the study was well within the remit of Facebook’s T&Cs. All users must tick a box agreeing to these T&Cs to use the website and in doing so, agree to “internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”
The authors of the report paper have stressed that the study was carried out purely for scientific purposes and that no personal data was used unnecessarily. And yet the news has still been met with much criticism.
Kate Crawford Tweeted that the experiment is ‘a symptom of a much wider failure to think about, ethics, power and consent on platforms” and Labour Mp Jim Sheridan commented, ‘This is extraordinarily powerful stuff and if there is not already legislation on this, then there should be to protect people.”
Co-author of the report on the research, Adam Kramer has responded to this criticism with an apology: “I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused.”
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