If there’s something that you’d think you could (mostly) trust online, it would be your Facebook News Feed, even though you’re probably going to be sifting through the odd sarcastic post and outright lie from friends. You certainly don’t expect to have Facebook themselves controlling what you see in your news feed in the name of social research.
That is just what has happened, with the 2012 study of around 690,000 users’ reactions to News Feeds being published in PNAS. The study checked whether “emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed” of the Facebook users in question. The problem with this study is that none of the participants were aware that Facebook’s researchers, in association with two US universities, were messing around with the content that they were seeing.
This approach to the research has caused concerns about their methodology, raising questions about the company’s ethics in this particular instance. However, the BBC reports that some, like psychology professor Katherine Sledge Moore, are not that worried about Facebook’s actions during the 2012 study.
The reaction to Facebook’s emotions study has been large enough that one of the researchers, Adam Kramer, has commented on what was done.
Kramer explained, saying “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.”
“Nobody’s posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads.”
He went on to say “The goal of all of our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service. Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone. I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”