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Facebook’s going down – will it take your shamefaced brand with it?

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2nd Jul 2014
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Facebook is in the virtual dog house once again, after details of its emotionally manipulative experiment have come to light.

Back in 2012, the social media stalwart conducted a study on almost 700,000 oblivious users, whose news feeds it manipulated in order to control the emotional expressions that they were exposed to. According to the report, the purpose of all this was to test “whether exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviors, in particular whether exposure to emotional content led people to post content that was consistent with the exposure – thereby testing whether exposure to verbal affective expressions leads to similar verbal expressions, a form of emotional contagion.”

Cue potential probing from global authorities and extensive backlash from irate Facebook members and the ever-finger-pointing media. Oh dear.

The thing is, Facebook is not the only organisation in the world indulging in a bit of behind-the-scenes website manipulation and data collection. Far from it. Pretty much every website out there – including yours, we're willing to bet – keeps personal data gathered from each visitor. And of those, more than a few use processes to incite certain behaviours, such as clicking on an advert or sharing a post. When it’s all put like that, it may not seem a million miles away from what your site does.

Warwick Business School’s assistant professor of behavioural science, Dr Suzy Moat, points out how common this kind of activity is online: “In many ways, this experiment is simply a public example of the experiments that many businesses run on a regular basis to investigate how they can influence our behaviour.”
 
She continues: “For example, Facebook and Amazon constantly experiment with showing different groups of people slightly different versions of their websites to see if one version is better at increasing the frequency with which users engage with the content, click on adverts, or buy products. You can opt out of these ‘experiments’ by not using the websites - but many people don't want to do this, as the services offer such value to them.”

However, this doesn’t mean everyone’s OK with it. “It's extremely understandable that many people are upset that their behaviour may have been manipulated for purely scientific purposes without their consent. In particular, Facebook's user base is so wide that everyone wonders if they were in the experiment.”

Dr Moat concludes: “This highlights a need for scientists to think back to how experiments in the social sciences have traditionally been run, and consider how open and transparent ethics procedures can be redesigned to take new technology such as Facebook into account. We also need to look at existing successful online experiments, such as Mappiness, which have recruited extremely large numbers of informed participants, simply by offering sufficient benefits for participating – just like a business does."

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