June 29, 2014
David Holmes at Pando Daily — Facebook’s science experiment on users shows the company is even more powerful and unethical than we thought:
In a report published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Facebook data scientists conducted an experiment to manipulate the emotions of nearly 700,000 users to see if positive or negative emotions are as contagious on social networks as they are in the real world. By tweaking Facebook’s powerful News Feed algorithm, some users (we should probably just call them “lab rats” at this point) were shown fewer posts with positive words. Others saw fewer posts with negative words. “When positive expressions were reduced,” the paper states, “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.”
The thing that bothers me about the increasing reliance on social media as a form of communication is that it is run by private companies whose aim is not the public good but their own enrichment. This isn’t like email or the web — neutral services we are free to use as we see fit.
Companies such as Facebook no doubt want to keep their users happy. They want to build loyalty and grow through word-of-mouth advocacy. But they are ultimately beholden to advertisers who naturally expect a return on their investment.
So if Facebook can find a way to increase the profits of its customers by manipulating the people the ads are aimed at, then why wouldn’t they? It might not seem unethical to us to be used as unwitting guinea pigs, but from the point of view of the ultimate goal (making money) it could be viewed as entirely the right thing to do.