Feeds

Facebook 'manipulated' 700k users' feelings in SECRET EXPERIMENT

News feed meddling totally within T&Cs, we're told

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

Updated Facebook let researchers adjust its users' news feeds to manipulate their emotions – and has suggested that such experimentation is routine, which is seemingly how the idea got past the advertising firm's ethics committees.

In 2012, the trick cyclists, led by the company's data scientist Adam Kramer, manipulated which posts from their friends the sample of nearly 700,000 users could see in their “News feed”, suppressing either positive or negative posts, to see whether either cheerful or downer posts seemed to be emotionally contagious.

With only a user's “agree click” on Facebook's terms and conditions document to provide a fig-leaf of consent to the creepy experiment, researchers from Cornell University, the University of California San Francisco manipulated users' news feeds.

Let's hear from the university:

“The researchers reduced the amount of either positive or negative stories that appeared in the news feed of 689,003 randomly selected Facebook users, and found that the so-called 'emotional contagion' effect worked both ways.”

Cornell Social Media Lab professor Jeff Hancock reports the simple correlation that turned up: “People who had positive content experimentally reduced on their Facebook news feed, for one week, used more negative words in their status updates. When news feed negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred: Significantly more positive words were used in peoples’ status updates.”

The study, which was published by PNAS here (the US National Academy of Sciences seems similarly unconcerned by the ethical concerns surrounding the experiment), describes the methodology like this in its abstract:

“We test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks” (emphasis added).

The researchers state clearly that “was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research” (emphasis added).

Media reception of the research has been almost universally hostile – put “Facebook” together with “creepy” into Google News for a sample. Noting that the research “seems cruel”, The Atlantic says even PNAS editor Susan Fiske found the study “creepy”, but let the study pass because “Facebook apparently manipulates people's News Feeds all the time”.

Vulture South isn't so sure the researchers can give themselves a clean bill of health. In particular, a data use policy most users don't read, and which would confuse many, seems inadequate as a definition of “informed consent”.

Moreover, while the data use policy does, as the researchers state, permit the use of data for “research”, the context doesn't seem in full agreement with the researchers' interpretation: “we may use the information we receive about you”, it states, “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement”.

In other words, “research” is offered not as a blanket permission, but as an example of “internal operations”.

The Atlantic notes that as a private company, Facebook isn't bound by the ethical rules that constrain academic research - something which doesn't exempt the two universities involved, nor the National Academy of Sciences.

Kramer has sought to explain himself in this post. He reassuringly claims that "our goal was never to upset anyone".

Kramer adds that "the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety", and says the experiment only adjusted the emotional content of News feeds in the positive direction.

He said posts weren't technically "hidden" since users could go looking for friends' posts on the friends' pages. However, the issue of consent remains unaddressed by Kramer.

Even the methodology of the study has come in for criticism. In this summary of the story, The Atlantic points to a critique by John Grohl at Psych Central.

Grohl says the research used textual analysis tools that were unsuited to the task set for them - discerning mood by extracting words from posts - and describes the results as a "statistical blip that has no real-world meaning". ®

Updated to add

Cornell originally credited funding for the research James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office. It has now amended its media release to say that the study received no external funding.

Security for virtualized datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Blockbuster book lays out the first 20 years of the Smartphone Wars
Symbian's David Wood bares all. Not for the faint hearted
'Serious flaws in the Vertigan report' says broadband boffin
Report 'fails reality test' , is 'simply wrong' and offers ''convenient' justification for FTTN says Rod Tucker
This flashlight app requires: Your contacts list, identity, access to your camera...
Who us, dodgy? Vast majority of mobile apps fail privacy test
Apple Watch will CONQUER smartwatch world – analysts
After Applelocalypse, other wristputers will get stuck in
Shades of Mannesmann: Vodafone should buy T-Mobile US
Biting the bullet would let Blighty-based biz flip the bird at AT&T
Drag queens: Oh, don't be so bitchy, Facebook! Let us use our stage names
Handbags at dawn over free content ad network's ID policy
Net neutrality fans' joy as '2.3 million email' flood hits US Congress
FCC invites opinions in CSV format, after Slowdown day 'success'
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile
Data demand and the rise of virtualization is challenging IT teams to deliver storage performance, scalability and capacity that can keep up, while maximizing efficiency.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.