Facebook, Ethics, and Validity

Facebook has been in the news recently for conducting research on emotion contagion - the idea that emotions can be spread via contact, in this case via social media contact. There has been a lot of outrage and criticism of the study, particularly over whether it was ethical for Facebook to conduct the study at all. For example, in this Times article Jaron Lanier argues that the study itself was malicious:

Our laws require that cars be recalled and fixed even if a defect would be likely to injure only a very small number of people. In this case, we’re talking about a study that was actually intended to cause a negative effect in many people, and one open question is how destructive it was in the worst instances that might have occurred.

While he raises some very important issues, his article strikes me as a bit reactionary. He goes on to argue:

Now that we know that a social network proprietor can engineer emotions for the multitudes to a slight degree, we need to consider that further research on amplifying that capacity might take place. Stealth emotional manipulation could be channeled to sell things (you suddenly find that you feel better after buying from a particular store, for instance), but it might also be used to exert influence in a multitude of other ways. Research has also shown that voting behavior can be influenced by undetectable social network maneuvering, for example. 

Stealth emotional manipulation channeled to sell things? I believe we call that advertising. Using media to manipulate voting behavior? I believe we call that politics.

A perhaps more balanced look at the Facebook study appeared in Wired Science. In an article appropriately entitled, "Everything You Need to Know About Facebook’s Controversial Emotion Experiment", Michelle Meyer covers, well, everything you need to know about Facebook's controversial emotion experiment. She points out that the research article makes claims that really cannot be supported based on the methods used. 

Second, although the researchers conclude that their experiments constitute evidence of “social contagion” —that is, that “emotional states can be transferred to others”—this overstates what they could possibly know from this study. The fact that someone exposed to positive words very slightly increased the amount of positive words that she then used in her Facebook posts does not necessarily mean that this change in her News Feed content caused any change in her mood.

She then delves into the finer points of ethics and review procedures. If you are interested in the Facebook emotion study, and/or the controversy surrounding it, I highly recommend checking out the rest of her article.