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Facebook Manipulates Users’ News Feeds for Controversial Study

By amancuso

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Users are questioning whether they can truly trust large social networking sites like Facebook with their personal information and well-being as a result of a recent psychological research study conducted through Facebook. The study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, required manipulating unaware users’ news feeds to test the rate of travel of “emotional contagion.”

The question behind the study itself was fairly simple: will seeing more negative or more positive emotional statuses on a user’s news feed cause them to post more negative or positive emotional statuses themselves? In other words, would users’ moods be affected by the emotional tone of the notices on their news feeds? By measuring the rate at which a bad mood or good mood was transferred from a users’ news feed to their own status updates, they could measure the rate of “emotional contagion.” To do this, Facebook altered the normal algorithms for selecting content for users’ news feeds, in some cases only allowing neutral-to-negative status updates and news to be published, and in others allowing only neutral-to-positive publications.

The difference between “positive” and “negative” mood content was determined by concentration of keyword use. For those users put into the “positive” mood contagion group, their news feeds were manipulated to show more birthdays, work promotions, engagements, and other happy news and status updates; then the rate of positive-toned keywords appearing in the user’s own status updates was monitored. Unfortunately, it was the same process with those users being monitored for a growth in negative-toned keywords: their news feeds were filtered to show more negative news such as deaths, crime, layoffs, or divorces.

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In the aftermath of the study’s appearance in PNAS, not only have many Facebook users expressed outrage at the study’s methods, but the scientific community has questioned the legitimacy of the study based on its methods as well. The crux of the matter in both cases comes down to this: did the Facebook study hold itself to the legal and ethical standards of informed consent required for such a study?

Facebook claims yes. Firstly, none of the data was associated with specific users’ accounts. Secondly, consent for users’ information to be used for research purposes is included in its Terms of Service. A large part of that research, Facebook claims, is understanding how users respond to certain types of content, including positive- or negative-toned content. It’s true that, to use Facebook, users must read and agree to let data about how they use Facebook, as well as demographic data, be used by the company—however, that use is usually implied to be solely for improving the way the site works, either by providing better technical and customer service or by better tailoring Facebook’s ads. From the site’s Terms of Service: “In addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you [... ] for internal operations , including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” (Emphasis ours.)

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Many users consider the use of their information for psychological research to be beyond the scope of that clause, and feel Facebook has gone beyond their rights to their users’ personal information, despite being technically legal. While Facebook does maintain a group of scientists to make observations about data that already exists, purposefully manipulating the news streams of its users counts as an experiment—it’s changing the parameters of a situation to collect new data. With an experiment, there are also harsher requirements for participants to offer informed consent, such as informing the participants ahead of time if there are “any foreseeable risks or discomforts” involved in the experiment—like negative influences in mood.

Investigation into the legitimacy of the experiment’s results, as well as the methods of its research and whether it legally oversteps Facebook’s user agreement, is still ongoing. While it might not be possible to protect all of your personal information from entities you’ve expressly given legal access, please remember that it’s important to make sure your personal and business information are protected from illegal access as well. If you are worried about the security of your network, please contact BuzzAGeek to secure one of our network audits.

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