Facebook Inc has defended itself over the research it conducted in 2012 alongside other researchers from Cornel University in which people’s ‘emotional contagion’ was studied. The company has recently come under fire by critics terming the study as controversial.
A lot of debate has been building over the ethicality of the experiment with the point of contention being whether Facebook really obtained users’ consent and whether the company was justified to experiment on its users without seeking their permission.
Informed consent is a key principle in human research ethics though in particular cases which involve a vital question with no accessible consent or in which seeking the same would interfere with the test, the authorization can b legally bypassed. Situations that match the above description are rare, and it is yet to be determined whether the Facebook study would qualify for this kind of exemption.
The outcome of the research that was conducted over duration of one week in 2012 was published last week in the June 17 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title of Experimental Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.
A sample population of close to 700 000 had been subjected to this test. The experiment involved changing content of newsfeeds for a randomly selected users’ sample. For one group they skewed the content to appear more positive by removing that which contained negative words. For the other, what contained positive words was removed making the newsfeed more negative than normal.
The effect of this alteration was then measured against Facebook users status updates. It was found that the people’s moods are affected by what they see in their news feeds on the social network. Those who saw more negative feeds tended to write more negative things while those who were exposed to more positive stuff on the social media would eventually post positive things on their own walls.
Facebook Inc had not informed the users about this experiment prior to its commencement thus the behavior by users was unconscious.
“We show, via a massive (N=689, 003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness”, reads the scientific findings publication. “We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues” it adds.
A Facebook spokesman stood in defense of the research stating that they conduct studies to improve the social media’s services and make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible, adding that they carefully consider what research to do and have a strong internal review process.
A member of the research team Adam D.I. Kramer said in a Facebook post that their goal was never to upset anyone, adding that he could understand why some people had concerns about it. He apologized on behalf of his coauthors for the manner the paper described the research and the anxiety it caused.
Adam Kramer proceeded to defend the goal of the experiment stating that it was important to investigate the common worry about the effects of users’ posts on Facebook friends. According to him, there was concern that people’s exposure to friends’ negativity might lead them to avoid visiting the social site.