There’s something rotten in the state of Facebook, and it smells suspiciously like an old-school CIA experiment.
It’s all over the news that Facebook conducted a (secret) experiment in which they manipulated the news feeds of almost 700,000 users without their express permission. The ‘study’ found that users who were exposed to mostly negative news wrote more negative posts themselves, and those who had more positive updates on their feeds wrote more positive things. Common sense would suggest that such a study was unneeded, like when UCLA spent almost a million dollars to determine that men looked ‘bigger and stronger’ with guns in their hands than without.
But apart from being a big waste of time and energy, the main criticism of the study revolves around privacy, and the fact that none of the users involved were aware of what was happening. Presumably, like many of us, those involved just woke up one day and wondered why their friends had become such unfathomable downers and proceeded with their existential crises. While Facebook maintain their small-print clause about employing user data for research purposes covers the study, it’s hard to figure out why wilfully depressing people is a valuable aspect of business planning. Perhaps even more than the privacy aspect, that is the crux of the ethical matter (for us, at least): Facebook effectively manipulated the emotional states of its users without knowing whether those users were mentally fit enough to be manipulated in the first place. Why didn’t they know? Lack of informed consent, which of course brings us back to privacy.
Perhaps a more valuable study, now that the deed is done, would be to determine how significantly those emotionally infected users were affected in their day-to-day lives, rather than just in their Facebook posts. Did those following courses of mental-health treatment backslide? Did anyone without known mental-health issues experience symptoms of depression? And did those who were exposed to only positive feeds formulate a more positive outlook on life in general? Cognitive behavioural therapists might want to weigh in on how it feels to have Facebook tell them their jobs are legitimate.
Aside from the significant ethical considerations, perhaps the most valuable lesson we can all take away from this study is that maybe we should stop using Facebook as free therapy and put up some pictures of unicorns and rainbows every once in a while. We now have proof that our FB friends will feel the better for it (if we didn’t know it already, which we did, but we like to complain).