We're all just lab rats in Facebook's laboratory

We're all just lab rats in Facebook's laboratory

Summary: Facebook has always controlled what we see in our news feeds. Now we know they've experimented on us to see what messages make us sad or happy.

SHARE:

We're all guinea pigs for Facebook. The world's most popular social network is always twisting our settings to find just the right combination of ads and real posts. That's old news. What we didn't know is that Facebook manipulated over half a million randomly selected users by changing the number of positive and negative posts they saw to see how it would effect their emotional state.

Lab-Rat
Will you be my Facebook friend?

I'm sorry, I wasn't aware I'd signed up to be a Facebook lab rat.

Mind you, I expect Facebook to play games with what I see in my news feed from even my closest friends in their pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Oh, you didn't know that Facebook does that? They do. According to research by Jon Loomer, a Facebook marketing expert, Any given Facebook post may be seen by 27.4 percent of your friends or fans who are online when it's posted.

Six Clicks: How sites secretly collect your data – and how to stop it

What I didn't expect was to find that Facebook played with the emotions of 689,000 of us during one week in January 2012. The scientists involved found, by rigging the users' news feeds, that the ones who got less positive news were inclined to be more negative in their own posts while those who got less bad news were inclined to be happier. What a shock!

What Facebook scientist Adam Kramer and his comrades did was almost certainly legal. If you read the Facebook Data Use Policy's fine print, you'll see that when you sign up for it you've given Facebook not just the right to almost all your personal data for advertising and feature improvement purposes, but also "for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement." This last one gives Facebook the right to do pretty much anything they want with your data.

Of course, Kramer and Facebook claim that what they did was legal. The relevant phrase in the paper, Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks, reads, "Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software … was adapted to run on the Hadoop Map/Reduce system and in the news feed filtering system, such that no text was seen by the researchers. As such, it was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research."

Really, that one click I made years ago to get on your network was informed consent? Wow, I certainly thought that over carefully before I hit my mouse button. 

Come on Facebook, why the hell didn't you just ask for volunteers? With over a billion users, I think you could easily get a few hundred thousand real volunteers for your study.

Kramer has since... well, I wouldn't call it an apology but he explained that he and his fellow scientists "care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product." Besides, "the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it — the result was that people produced an average of one fewer emotional word, per thousand words, over the following week."

And this: "Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone. I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety."

You think?

You know what adds salt to the privacy wound? The study itself appears to be fatally flawed. 

Dr. John Grohol, founder and CEO of Psych Central, a mental health site, stated that, for starters, the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program is fatally flawed for this kind of study. And, even if you did buy into the study after that, "you’re still left with research showing ridiculously small correlations that have little to no meaning to ordinary users. For instance, Kramer et al (2014) found a 0.07% — that’s not 7 percent, that’s 1/15th of one percent!! — decrease in negative words in people’s status updates when the number of negative posts on their Facebook news feed decreased. This isn’t an 'effect' so much as a statistical blip that has no real-world meaning."

So Facebook did all this, annoyed God knows how many people, for basically nothing. 

I've never trusted Facebook to keep my data private nor that they'll ever stop manipulating my news feed — if I have to set my Facebook News Feed to Most Recent from Top Stories one more time I'm going to scream! — but I didn't expect to see Facebook playing with my emotions.

Stop it, Facebook. Stop it now. And, never, ever do anything like this again.

Related Stories:

Topics: Security, Privacy, Social Enterprise

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

14 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Google & Facebook users are rats...

    Privacy invasion is unacceptable.
    Owl:Net
    • In this particular case, wouldn't Facebook employees be the rats?

      Facebook users are merely laboratory rats upon which Facebook employees conduct experiments.

      P.S. And given that Microsoft has a stake in Facebook, does this make Microsoft a rat too?
      Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Google & Facebook???

      Don't you mean Facebook's partner and stake holder Microsoft?
      BoxOfParts
  • Eye roll

    I can't tell if people are just clueless to what goes on around them in the marketing world, or they're just fanboys doing the usual irrational bashing.
    Buster Friendly
  • So don't use Facebook

    Facebook has been doing naughty things for a while now. If you're going to complain about some service, first think about whether you really need it. Google+ is largely like Facebook without some of the bad bits. And it's Google! Sure, if Facebook dies and Google+ replaces it, we will get all the mindless people that just reshare or post idiocy, but if it will stop all the service complaints...
    Stephen Angelico
    • Google is far worse

      Google is far worse. For example they had a sneak install AND MAKE DEFAULT of the chrome browser when installing flash for acrobat. If you didn't happen to notice a little check box before even starting the download, you were allegedly agreeing to it. Trying to trick the user into installing software that then collects information on that user's activities is pretty much the definition of malware. That's when I closed my Google accounts and ditched my android phone.
      Buster Friendly
      • Really?

        Buster Friendly said "For example they had a sneak install AND MAKE DEFAULT of the chrome browser when installing flash for acrobat."

        I work in IT and one of our favorite sayings to each other that we'd LOVE to say to users like you is: RTFS. (Read The F******** Screen!!)

        How is it Google's fault that Adobe put in a Chrome install in their Flash install? (And you didn't read the screen and remove the check box?) And does it make Trend any less guilty when they offered their Office Antivirus as the "sneak install" a while back with their Reader install? How about the Java install that put the Ask Tool Bar on your system with NO WAY to uncheck it? That lasted a very short while. And how many other apps install stuff like Google Toolbar, Ask Tool Bar, or worse?

        Nice of you to single out Google when it's actually Adobe who is the one trying to get you to install something else (and it's ultimately YOU for not RTFS). And installing Google apps is how many of these smaller apps that are free receive funding, so let's blame Google for them as well.
        benched42
        • Are we expected to believe

          Are we expected to believe, benched42, that a tech worker/company has no understanding that most people overlook details in long agreements.... and that they did not deliberately make the SMALL box so that people had to opt OUT, based on that knowledge of human nature to overlooking small details in internet agreements??

          For what other reason do you make it so subtle, and make customers opt OUT of the installment, unless it is in hope that the consumer overlooks it?

          Good products--like valor--don't need to hide and sneak.

          Anyone who does this at any time should be questioned, because this is devious behavior, abusing a public trust.

          You ought to be ashamed for defending such a policy.... And in such a way, as to overlook discussing or justifying the actual repugnant action. It doesn't speak well for you, your company, or your product, that you'd try to foist it on people the way a pervert on the subway sneaks his hand up a lady's skirt.
          ShadowSelf85
      • Thats terrible!

        Only the maker of your OS should be able to sneak software on your system and enable it as the default.

        MS did this very thing before bundling the IE with Win98 and shipping it against court orders. Not only did they sneak it on systems with other software installs, certain softwares did not so much as give you an option to uncheck a box or even inform you IE would be installed as the default browser. Not only that, it permanently crippled your previous browser such that even a reinstall would not repair it. Back in those days, I had to do many OS reinstalls just to get my client's Netscape browsers back after they inadvertently installed IE. If they needed the software and there was no option to not install IE, I had to do a fresh install of the OS, install the software, uninstall IE, then install Netscape in that order.

        While I find that having to opt out of installs of unrelated, bundled software to be annoying its certainly not as bad as the actions MS once took to win in the browser wars.

        Perhaps in your haste protest against the practice of software bundling, you should hold Adobe equally responsible. Google did not bundle Chrome without Adobe's consent. Have you sworn off Flash and Acrobat?

        Also, as you are against data collection, have you sworn off Bing, Yahoo, Facebook and the Internet itself? The Internet would be difficult to use without some consent to the collection and analysis of data.
        techadmin.cc@...
  • This is bullsh*t

    This exactly why I do not like any of the "social" media. They use your information for any purpose that they deem important and do they compensate you? Not on your life. They just want us to go along with no complaints so that their "market research"is not slowed down or halted in any way. Facebook can eat the peanuts out of my sh*t as far as I am concerned. I do nothing to help them if I catch them at their crap. I will always find a way to upset their goals.
    Kevin McNeely
  • Just quit this waste of time FB already!

    I closed my account yesterday. I joined for easy access to family pic's. I never signed up for all the other BS. This just made it easier to pull the Social Media plug.
    At the age of 55 I decided that I have been a guinea pig long enough. BBFB!
    UNCKLEBUD
  • Dude, it's Zuckerberg

    If you didn't know he was an a-hole already, well....... now you know.
    Sasori7
  • Facebook product -> You!

    If you use a free service and wonder what's the resource to finance that service, wonder no more! They are selling you!
    derwanderer
  • Facebook & Google

    Two of a kind.. I started noticing recently that a search I did on my computer at home would show up in my search list on my cell phone. Sure, the cell is android.. and I have only ever searched with google on it once.. I think I did it once... but if I hit it by mistake and it comes up, there are all my searches from home.. and home is a PC.. not even using the same email addresses or account names.. I never gave samsung or google my other account name, nor do I recall ever giving them my real name.. how did they link the too? I don't know, but I am cutting everything google that I can out of my life, and I would quit facebook too if I had ever joined. :->
    My life is not grist for their mill.. if they want to know something about me they can ask.. and if they only want it so they can make money.. how much is my share of that?
    Putertechn