Facebook ‘emotional contagion’ study burns users

Researchers manipulated the number of positive and negative statuses that nearly 700,000 people say in their Facebook news feeds. It’s legal, but is it right?

​ Some Facebook users are pretty upset to find out that researchers may have manipulated what they saw in their news feeds for the sake of a study.

A team of researchers, led by Jeff Hancock, a professor at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of its Social Media Lab, counted the number of positive and negative words in the updates of the nearly 700,000 Facebook members sampled in a January 2012 study. The team also changed what some people saw in their feeds to test their emotional responses. The study’s title refers to the phenomenon as “emotional contagion.”

The researchers found that, of the 122 million words in the posts, positive words outnumbered the negative ones at an almost two to one ratio (4 million positive to 1.8 million negative).

Not surprisingly, those Facebook users who saw more positive status messages in their News Feeds were more likely to post positive status updates of their own; the converse was also true.

Though the researchers followed Facebook’s data use policy, the study lacked what’s referred to in academia as “informed consent” among the participants. No one was informed, nor did anyone consent to be test subjects.

Cue the typical anti-Facebook outrage. Privacy advocate Lauren Weinstein made this point:

Another privacy advocate, Paul Bernal, offered some new tongue-in-cheek guidelines that he thinks Facebook should consider, including, “By using Facebook, you consent to having your emotions and feelings manipulated, and those of all your friends (as defined by Facebook) and relatives, and those people that Facebook deems to be connected to you in any way” and “by using Facebook, you consent to being used for experiments and research.”

Social collaboration consultant Amber Naslund goes one step further, and says one solution to opt out of Facebook using one’s news feed for research is to go deactivate your account. That isn’t a very viable solution for a public relations practitioner, particularly one who works with social media accounts.

As former Ford digital and multimedia manager Scott Monty said on Facebook yesterday, “When the product is free, you are the product.”

What do you think, Ragan readers? Is being a test subject just the price of a free service? How will this affect people’s perceptions of Facebook?

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