Furor erupts over Facebook's experiment on users

Almost 700,000 unwitting subjects had their news feeds altered as part of a study to gauge effect on emotion.

By MSN Money Partner Jun 30, 2014 11:35AM

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo. © REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/FilesBy Reed Albergotti, The Wall Street Journal

A social-network furor has erupted over news that Facebook (FB), in 2012, conducted a massive psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 unwitting users.

The Wall St. Journal on MSN MoneyTo determine whether it could alter the emotional state of its users and prompt them to post either more positive or negative content, the site's data scientists enabled an algorithm, for one week, to automatically omit content that contained words associated with either positive or negative emotions from the central news feeds of 689,003 users.

The research, published in the March issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sparked a different emotion – outrage -- among some people who say Facebook toyed with its users emotions and uses members as guinea pigs.

"What many of us feared is already a reality: Facebook is using us as lab rats, and not just to figure out which ads we'll respond to but actually change our emotions," wrote Animalnewyork.com, a blog post that drew attention to the study Friday morning.

Facebook has long run social experiments. Its Data Science Team is tasked with turning the reams of information created by the more than 800 million people who log on every day into usable scientific research.

On Sunday, the Facebook data scientist who led the study in question, Adam Kramer, said he was having second thoughts about this particular project. "In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety," he wrote on his Facebook page.

"While we've always considered what research we do carefully," he wrote, Facebook's internal review process has improved since the 2012 study was conducted. "We have come a long way since then."

The impetus for the study was an age-old complaint of some Facebook users: That going on Facebook and seeing all the great and wonderful things other people are doing makes people feel bad about their own lives.

The study, Kramer wrote, was an attempt to either confirm or debunk that notion. Kramer said it was debunked.

According to an abstract of the study, "for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people's status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred."

The controversy over the project highlights the delicate line in the social media industry between the privacy of users and the ambitions—both business and intellectual -- of the corporations that control their data.

Companies like Facebook, Google (GOOG) and Twitter (TWTR) rely almost solely on data-driven advertising dollars. As a result, the companies collect and store massive amounts of personal information. Not all of that information can be used for advertising -- at least not yet. In the case of Facebook, there is an abundance of information practically overflowing from its servers. What Facebook does with all its extra personal information -- the data isn't currently allocated to the advertising product -- is largely unknown to the public.

Facebook's Data Science team occasionally uses the information to highlight current events. Recently, it employed it to determine how many people were visiting Brazil for the World Cup. In February, The Wall Street Journal published a story on the best places to be single in the U.S., based on data gathered by the company's Data Science Team.

Those studies have raised few eyebrows. The attempt to manipulate users' emotions, however, struck a nerve.

"It's completely unacceptable for the terms of service to force everybody on Facebook to participate in experiments," said Kate Crawford, visiting professor at MIT's Center for Civic Media and principal researcher at Microsoft Research.

Crawford said it points to broader problem in the data science industry. Ethics are not "a major part of the education of data scientists and it clearly needs to be," she said.

Asked a Forbes.com blogger: "Is it okay for Facebook to play mind games with us for science? It's a cool finding, but manipulating unknowing users' emotional states to get there puts Facebook's big toe on that creepy line."

Slate.com called the experiment "unethical" and said "Facebook intentionally made thousands upon thousands of people sad."

Kramer defended the ethics of the project. He apologized for wording in the published study that he said might have made the experiment seem sinister. "And at the end of the day, the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it," he wrote on Facebook.

Facebook also said the study was conducted anonymously, so researchers could not learn the names of the research subjects.

Kramer said that the content -- both positive and negative -- that was removed from some users' news feeds might have reappeared later.

The emotional changes in the research subjects was small. For instance, people who saw fewer positive posts only reduced the number of their own positive posts by a tenth of a percent.

Comments from Facebook users poured in Sunday evening on Kramer's Facebook page. The comments were wide-ranging, from people who had no problem with the content, to those who thought Facebook should respond by donating money to help people who struggle with mental health issues.

"I appreciate the statement," one user wrote. "But emotional manipulation is emotional manipulation, no matter how small of a sample it affected."

Facebook users agree to terms of service that give the company wide leeway in how it can treat them.

More from The Wall Street Journal

Jun 30, 2014 12:26PM
Why is this a surprise?  Facebook doesn't provide a product.  The users ARE the product.  Facebook  provides a free service to gain access to a pool of users who can be manipulated by advertising.  Wake up you knuckleheads.  The website is designed to use you.
Jun 30, 2014 12:12PM
Rely on that old adage:  follow the money.  

While Facebook may claim all this experimenting is to gather psychological data in the name of science (even going so far as to get it published in the Proceedings of the NAS), you can bet that the underlying motive is see how to manipulate Facebook users to do more postings and to ultimately see and spread more on-line advertising.

One of the more important reasons why I NEVER considering using Facebook, despite occasional appeals from friends.
Jun 30, 2014 12:34PM
Facebook is just another form of sheep herding - nothing more than online inbreeding for the worlds commercial bloodsucking parasites and instant fame wannabes living in their own little la-la land instead of reality. It brings all the sheep together in one place so it is easier for the crooks, the depraved, the psychos, the has-beens and the embryonic clones to cull the herd for their own purposes. Manipulation, deceit and control at it's best ..... free sheep-dip for all.
Jun 30, 2014 11:55AM
Facebook is getting ready to drive off a lot of members if it continues this
Jun 30, 2014 12:48PM
Come on people - how about setting some standards for yourself instead of falling for every techno gimmick that comes along.  Just because something is different than we are used to doesn't make it better or more progressive.  Quit taking the bait folks and make these people actually come up with something new and better before jumping on the bandwagon.   Total groupthink followers being taken advantage of.  Wise up.

The next thing you know someone will magically invent a form of communication that limits you to using only  42 characters at a time to get your point across.   How foolish is that. 
Jun 30, 2014 1:07PM
Just the continuing trend of intruding into peoples lives. The Government, Google, All those  privacy statements we sign, what information we share, watching what we look at to target ads for us, citizens recording each other, Face book playing games; it goes on and on.
Jun 30, 2014 2:44PM
Facebook is for zombies that give up their own rights to privacy. There is a good documentary everyone on Facebook should watch called "Terms and Conditions May Apply". Basically, the government spy agencies are using Facebook to accomplish what they could not, and the sheeple are making it ridiculously easy for them .
Jun 30, 2014 3:38PM

Who among us are really shocked at this so-called news. It would surprise me to hear that they haven't been doing this type of research from the beginning and will continue to do it.

So yeah, duh

Jul 1, 2014 5:44AM
Looks like the experiment was a success.
Jul 1, 2014 8:29AM
I would share this but they kicked me off a long time ago.
Jul 1, 2014 8:05AM

Are you kidding me?! Never mind that we are being and have continuously been manipulated by all manner of messages 24/7 since the 1920’s when Edward Bernays, the father of modern advertising, figured out that if you speak to consumers’ insecurities, you can sell more stuff. This concept quickly morphed from merely using consumers’ lack of self-esteem against them, to actually perpetuating and even creating more of those insecurities. Never mind that 99% of most people’s opinions are not their own and have merely been unquestioningly adopted from their parents, teachers, politicians, television, movies, magazines, and society as a whole. Never mind that the real issue is not whether or not others are trying to manipulate us, but that we are so manipulatable in the first place.


Because no matter what side of that debate you’re on, you’re still totally missing the point that we don’t have to pay any attention to what’s in our newsfeeds, or on our television screens or written in magazines. The question should never be about how to control those who control our minds. The question I want to ask is: why aren’t we freaking controlling our own damn minds in the first place?


It doesn’t matter what images are thrown at you if you exercise your ability to think for yourself, choose what you give your focus to and form your own, educated opinions. It doesn’t matter what some company does as long as you remember that you don’t have to buy their products. It doesn’t matter what the TV shows you as long as you remember that you have the power to change the channel and turn it off. And if you don’t like the content that’s being distributed, make your own. It’s never been easier to voice your opinion. It’s also never been easier to research all sides of any topic. There really is no excuse to live mindlessly anymore. There really is no excuse for handing that much power, the power over your own experience in this physical reality, over to others. But if you do, you really have no right to complain.


(The above are excerpts from a transcript I read about the Facebook debacle)

Jul 1, 2014 8:23AM
unwitting subjects?  if you're on facebook, you're witless.
Jun 30, 2014 5:21PM
Is it too late to trade Zuckerberg for any more Taliban captives?
Jun 30, 2014 4:06PM
The new experiment is to see how angry users get when they find out they've been manipulated.  Results are pretty clear that we need to keep people in the dark about this stuff.
Jul 1, 2014 8:10AM
FB is for those who can't make a real life on their own, and think everybody actually cares about their kids soccer game scores. Get a life people.
Jul 1, 2014 9:42AM
Every "commercial" you see on television---and event the "programs" themselves are meant to evoke emotions from you!!!! Is this really a surprise to anyone? Obtaining "information" for the purpose of manipulating opinion has been ongoing since creation!!! I'm sure the information they got was what they expected...and even now, they are "monitoring" these "responses" to see how WE are reacting to this report!!! 
Jul 19, 2014 9:05PM
Nice to know I'm justified in my never getting one. Nor will I. Real interaction, and good conversationalists are rare nowadays. Many out there now are socially inept thanks to this age. So much for technology serving mankind. 
Jul 19, 2014 4:16PM
Would love to see a class action lawsuit against zuckerberg and facebook because of this.
Jul 1, 2014 10:02AM
Wow, I feel really bad for all these people who are responding to Facebook angry because a social media site made them 'sad'. And now they want to Facebook to donate to mental health facilities? I'm sorry but if some advertisement is going to make a user 'sad' then maybe they have deeper issues and they just need to stay the heck off the internet period. And what is this "emotional manipulation" crap? No one is forcing anyone to sign in. No one is forcing anyone to read these ads. So stop putting your blame on anyone else other than yourselves. 
Jul 21, 2014 8:16AM

My, my, my! Don't you wonder how many others do similar acts? And what else do companies do to manipulate us? Subliminal messaging is done thru words, pictures and acts to manipulate the masses. MSN keeps you flipping to more pages just to see there advertising and you do. You view all this and whether you remember in you subconscious or consciously read it, it affects you!

Now we know, not only do criminals of various intent mine Social sites for victims that expose their life style, possessions and weaknesses, but now we know the sites them selves take advantage of members. 

So much is done to manipulate the masses. Food stores move things around so you have to wonder the store to find what you want or put the most common purchases, like bread at the far end of the store.

Enticements to subscribe to magazines and newsletters far in advance so they can have and hold your money now.

Think about this - write a message and see the button below " Also post to FaceBook"? Now you can post your anonymous comments directly to FaceBook in your own recognizable name. You then be identified and sorted by key word or phrases into political, racial, religious or what ever categories they choose.   

It goes on and on....Twitter, Linked in ....

I already know I'm an oddball contrarian. I joined FaceBook long ago but never used it very much at all.

Tough luck for all you sheep! 

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