Facebook has recently angered users by conducting a secret psychological study on its members without permission. This study occurred right under the noses of the social media site’s active supporters. Last week, Facebook administrators confessed that it had randomly selected over 500,000 of its users and incorporated different amounts of positive or negative stories that were shown in the test subjects’ news feed. The purpose of the study was to reveal how the impact of emotions are transmitted across the internet, and the social media company claims that users agree to these types of studies in the terms and conditions when signing up for a Facebook account. Many are arguing that this type of study had no beneficial effect on social media site’s utility, nor on the people involved in the study. It is well-known that many websites alter content for user optimization, but not to learn more about how emotional feelings are proliferated over the internet.
Researchers for Facebook conducted the study for one week in January of 2012. During this time, Facebook manipulated the news feeds of 689,003 random users, and then monitored the study’s test subjects’ status updates and postings to see if the stories seen in the news feed had a positive or negative effect on the users’ posts. Facebook found that people’s cheerful and depressing posts depended on the positive or negative information seen in the news feeds. A positive news feed equaled positive posts, and a negative news feed elicited negative posts. No permission was ever granted from the users that were having their news feeds and status updates constantly monitored except for those agreed to in Facebook’s terms and conditions. This has stirred up quite the controversy about privacy limitations, as well as conditional agreements.
This study emphasizes the fact that Facebook is capable of controlling what its users see, can conduct secret psychological studies and in turn, make people really angry. The company chooses what all users see on a daily basis – every time they log in, so Facebook is arguing that this study is not that big of a deal. Facebook also argues that manipulating someone’s news feed did not cause an extreme impact on the content users posted after seeing positive or negative news feeds. On average users posted one emotional word more than they would have on a regular week; however Facebook has no way of telling what these individuals experienced after seeing a negative post once they were away from their computers. That would necessitate a followup and psychological study.
Facebook has apologized for angering users with a secret study, and has cited that there are important reasons for conducting research like this. At the top of the list of reasons is the desire to learn how users respond to content. Facebook also says that, “we care about the emotional impact of Facebook,” and they are concerned that if users see negativity coming from other people, then the desire to log on to Facebook will decrease. With over 300 million users, it is doubtful that this social media site will ever struggle with declining membership or losing active users.
By Sarah Gallagher