Facebook conducts experiments on us all the time (Wired UK)

[Pictured] How to block Facebook's mind control
[Pictured] How to block Facebook’s mind controlShutterstock

Turns out, everyone was right to
be outraged and concerned that Facebook decided to run a giant
psychology experiment on its users
, potentially without
oversight or without informing targets.

A former data scientist at the social network, Andrew Ledvina,
has told the Wall Street Journal that not only is there no review
process, but the team was at it all the time.

“Anyone on that team could run a test,” he told the newspaper.
“They’re always trying to alter peoples’ behaviour.”

To a certain extent, we would expect this anyway. Marketers are
constantly tweaking what we see online in order to judge whether
wording or imagery affects sales or shares. What we have seen from
Facebook this week though, with the revelation that in 2012 it
spent a week toying with the News Feeds of nearly 700,000 users in
order to change their mood, was something else entirely. It was a
mass experiment in human psychology that appeared to have been
carried out without due process or any adherence to international
codes of ethics that become so relevant when dealing with matters
sensitive to a person’s emotional state.

Ledvina — who worked at the company from February 2012 until
July 2013 — went on to tell the Wall Street Journal that
he once ran an experiment with a product manager, without telling
anyone else. Despite the ridiculous number of users (the
experiments took place in the same year the company hit one billion
users), apparently the team began to fear the same users were being
used in multiple experiments — they carried out that many.

The company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg has now stepped in the debate
as well, telling NDTV while on a trip to India that this whole affair
just comes down to one thing: poor communication…

She said: “We communicated very badly on the emotions study…
We hope users understand that we care about their privacy…We want
to be transparent and give users control.

“Facebook cannot control emotions of users. Facebook will not
control emotions of users.”

Strange that, considering the paper, published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United
States of America
, in conjunction with Cornell University, was
entitled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional
contagion through social networks” and involved manipulating feeds to have more negative or positive content in
order to see how it effected user’s posts. The authors write in the
paper abstract: “We show, via a massive experiment on Facebook,
that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional
contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without
their awareness.”

The article goes on to say that the effect size is small at “d =
0.001”. It then warns of the connections between emotions and
physical wellbeing, and how online messages can influence offline
behaviours. “And after all,” they continue, “an effect size of d =
0.001 at Facebook’s scale is not negligible: In early 2013, this
would have corresponded to hundreds of thousands of emotion
expressions in status updates per day.” So they are pointing out
the potential dangers to an individual’s health online messages can
induce, by pointing out it just did a mass experiment that aimed to
impact subjects’ emotional states…

Sandberg added that the company was speaking with regulators
internationally. That’s because they are banging on Facebook’s door
— we heard this week how the UK’s Information Commissioner’s
Office is  looking into the issue, along with the Irish data protection

There are presumably vast benefits to conducting the kind of
mass experiments Facebook has the capacity to. However, without the
oversight procedures in place we have come to expect from this
particular sector of the scientific community, it’s unlikely the
public would want this to continue. Particularly when they hear
that Ledvina said one experiment caused concern among the data
science team, but it came to nothing, adding: “Internally, you get
a little desensitised to it.” 

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Source: wired.co.uk

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