Aside from being the world’s largest social network, Facebook is also a sociologist’s dream. With 1.28 billion worldwide active users, the social network has created the most formidable data set ever seen for studying human behaviour.
Not one to let your data go to waste, the company employs a team of data scientists to conduct experiments with user data and behaviour, as it did in a recent study, first reported by NewScientist.
According to the study, Facebook manipulated the News Feeds of 689,003 users to study whether online emotions can be contagious. For a week, some users were shown posts in News Feed containing a higher number of positive words, others were shown posts with more negative sentiments. From the study:
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
Given that Facebook has spent the better part of 2014 making very public gestures to assure users it will protect their privacy, experiments like this one, which treat unwitting users and their data as test subjects, threaten to damage the social network’s already shaky privacy reputation.
While nobody likes being emotionally manipulated, part of the outrage seems to be due to the fact that Facebook is technically in the right, here. When you sign up for Facebook, you are, in fact, offering up your consent to have your data and profiles used in these kinds of experiments.
Though this sort of thing may be nothing new, it’s a reminder that just because you don’t have to pay to use Facebook, doesn’t mean admission to the social network is free.