Becoming Facebook’s Guinea Pig

A global test group of 1.3 billion people, ready to unconsciously take part in your next big field experiment. Now this does sound like every social scientists dream, doesn’t it? Unsurprisingly, Facebook has figured just that.

It was not more than a couple of months ago that Facebook published its, by now, infamous “emotional contagion” study. In short the study consisted of Facebook manipulating the news feeds of nearly 700.000 users in order to manipulate these users’ emotions. Facebook was able to do this, simply by tweaking which of the news feed messages (positive or negative) were shown to the user. The study concluded that “emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks”.

Besides the ethical ambiguity of conducting research on an unwilling test group, what else should we worry about regarding Facebook’s new timeline-manipulating pastime?  Well according to PHD Media research conducted last year, beauty product companies should tailor their marketing campaigns based on how women feel about their appearance. The study then elaborated on the moments of the week women felt the worst about themselves, peaking on Mondays. Facebook’s “emotional contagion” study shows that marketers no longer have to wait for Mondays to deploy their emotionally fueled campaigns, instead social media companies are able to create these marketing opportunities themselves.

Imaginably, Facebook was broadly criticized when these research practices were released. If Facebook truly values their users as much as they say they do, surely they should bring a stop to this. Right?

Naturally there is no sign of Facebook stopping any form of research; on the contrary, Facebook’s CTO has recently declared that the social network will be ‘more careful in how it conducts research in the future’. This is exactly the kind of statement you would expect from a company planning to conduct much more similar research in the coming years. I’m sceptical whether we, as consumers, have the power to avoid becoming Facebook’s ‘guinea pig’. What are your thoughts?


One response to “Becoming Facebook’s Guinea Pig”

  1. davidtakacs says :

    Really interesting post and interesting topic indeed. I can agree that this is every social scientist’s dream, but not just social science. The possibilities of conducting research with such a huge sample size are tremendous. The interesting thing is that probably it was completely legal, because the regulations of Facebook include the possibility of using the the data for research purposes that the users disclose. So the research was conducted legally, however, they probably didn’t expect a public outcry.

    Especially, since it all happened back in 2012 in the “pre-Snowden era”, when internet users weren’t as concerned about their private data as they are today. As far as I’m concerned, Facebook has the opportunity now to conduct researches which were always thought to be impossible. Facebook could come up with an opt-in function, so that users could set manually if they wish to participate or not. This could prevent negative PR in the future. So personally I don’t mind being Facebook’s guinea pig.


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