Facebook’s Emotion Study Under Ethical Scrutiny

A controversial paper has just been published in PNAS that studied the effects of the emotional content of posts that appear in a person’s news feed on Facebook. The number of positive and negative posts that appeared was manipulated without the person’s knowledge to look at what effect it had on the emotional content posted by the user. Their results show that emotional contagion (transfer or sharing of an emotional state) can occur through online social networks. However, the effects reported in the study were very small. As they put it, “people’s emotional expression is difficult to manipulate” as mood is affected by many experiences throughout the day.

More interesting than the results is Facebook’s ability and willingness to cause changes in emotions in an enormous number (689,003) of unknowing ‘participants’. There was no consent given for involvement in the study and it is looking as though no ethical approval was ever received by the researchers. The rather serious implications are that the data use policies of companies like Facebook and Google can allow them to legally experiment and tinker with the emotions and thoughts of their users. Don’t get me wrong collaboration between universities and private companies is desirable, but there surely must be greater transparency and regulation to limit behavioural manipulation of the public.