By now you’ve heard the news that Facebook recently conducted an “emotional experiment” whereby they manipulated the news feeds of users, nearly 700,000 of them. Conducted in 2012, the experiment or study or whatever you want to call it, was conducted over a period of one week and saw researchers alter the amount of positive and negative content in users’ News Feeds to study how they responded.
The results showed that those who saw less positive content were more likely to post a negative update or story themselves and vice-versa with those seeing positive-themed content in turn posted positive content on their own.
When the news broke the outcry was far and wide with many claiming Facebook had crossed the line by subjecting these people to such an experiment with their knowledge. The privacy group, Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission saying, among other things: “Facebook had flouted ethical standards that govern experiments on human subjects.”
Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at Wharton says what while she’s not sure Facebook did anything illegal they clearly they have violated the expectations of users. “Users have the opportunity to “sort” their news feed items by various criteria, none of which reflect the criteria used in the experiment,” she said. “It is one thing when companies do A/B testing of their messaging or ad copy to see which is most effective, but it is certainly another thing when status from ‘friends’ on a news feed are rearranged or edited. I do think this experiment violated users’ trust.”
Managing partner of the Blanch Law Firm Ryan Blanch says that it is not a legal issue due to the fact that like many other industries and areas, the law is slow to keep up with new uses of technology. “I’m sure that lawyers will look for a way to turn Facebook’s market research into a legal issue,” he told me. “However, it’s not a legal issue or a privacy issue.”
Much Ado About Nothing (New)?
Truth be told when I decided to use that phrase as part of the title of this article I was fearful that it would appear as if I am downplaying any effect or impact, emotional or otherwise, this experiment had on those who were included in it.
I am by no means condoning what Facebook did nor trying to diminish the impact.
The operative word in this is the word “new” as in this isn’t anything new under the marketing and advertising sun, kids.
Juliano Laran, associate professor of marketing for the University of Miami refers to this as an example of a “priming effect” which he says occurs when people are exposed to information in their surroundings and subsequently behave congruently with the information they have been exposed to, without their awareness.
“For instance, my research has found that people exposed to brands suggesting saving (e.g., Walmart) indicated lower intentions to spend money when they went shopping at the mall,” he said. “We are exposed to a large array of ads on a daily basis, and these ads are effective precisely because they encourage behavior congruent with the ads (e.g., purchase the advertised products or related products).”
Blanch agrees telling me that Facebook is doing what every major corporation has done since the invention of ‘market research’. “The only difference is that consumers of social media are giving the corporations that run the space way more personal information to work with,” he adds. He then cautioned consumers “You can’t give a corporation a hall pass to your mind and expect them to behave as anything other than a corporation.”
At the end of the day boys and girls this is about business; about money. Facebook is in business to make money of course. And being a public company they are, as Blanch so eloquently puts it, “has a greater duty to its shareholders than it does to its consumers who have waived most rights to complain by accepting the terms and conditions.”
And it’s apparently nothing new at Facebook itself either. A few days ago my fellow Forbes contributor, Kashmir Hill pretty much said as much in her aptly titled column “Ex-Facebook Data Scientist: Every Facebook User Is Part Of An Experiment At Some Point.”
Her column references a blog post scribed by Andrew Ledvina, a former data scientist at Facebook who, in addition to the above comment, also wrote that “Experiments are run on every user at some point in their tenure on the site…”
Is anyone truly surprised by any of this?
Do you really think Facebook is the only one doing this sort of research?
As Blanch told me “you can be sure that Google and the industry is performing equally invasive testing and data analysis, in order to serve up the most gratifying experience to consumers.”
This article first appeared on Forbes and can be found here