The bad news is, anyone who uses Facebook has probably been experimented on. The good news is, there’s nothing new in that. We’ve all been guinea pigs for years.
Which box of detergent sells better: The blue box of the red box? Marketers know, because of human experimentation.
The headline “Man Bites Dog” will supposedly sell more newspapers than “Dog Bites Man.” Newspapers know, because of human nature.
Then there’s Facebook, the world’s biggest social networking site. Facebook knows a lot about its users.
Most of the information that Facebook gets from us comes voluntarily. As Robert Booth commented in The Guardian, “It already knows whether you are single or dating, the first school you went to and whether you like or loathe Justin Bieber.” But when Facebook recently came clean about its so-called emotional contagion experiment, conducted on nearly 700,000 subscribers, some thought the company had gone too far.
The finding of the study, as published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, is that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness,” and that this can be done without direct interaction between people.
For one week in 2012, Facebook manipulated the news feed of 689,003 random test subjects (less than one tenth of 1 percent of its clientele), without their knowledge. People’s status posts on Facebook — where they share their feelings, silly cat videos and comments about how drunk they got last weekend — are shared with their Facebook friends as news feeds. The experiment simply filtered the types of news feeds they received.
“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. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.”
Shelly Palmer, who writes a blog about the latest technology, explained why he is outraged by the “unethical experiment.” “Facebook’s played relatively dirty in the past, but has always left some an opt-out clause or security feature to revert things to how they were. Facebook’s wanted to give more and more of your info to marketers, but has never taken away the ability to fully control your experience until now.” And yet, Palmer writes that he’ll continue to use Facebook for the foreseeable future.
Everything we read or watch or listen to affects our opinions and emotions, and some will attempt to deliberately manipulate the masses by controlling these. All we can do is attempt to expose ourselves to the best information, a variety of views but from credible sources, and to always consider the source.