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What Does The Facebook Experiment Mean For Marketers?

Duo on July 10, 2014

The news that Facebook manipulated users' news feeds to determine if moods could be affected based on what emotions they see has spread like wildfire. Experts from all over the globe have weighed in, and debates over privacy are running rampant. There is a ton of information circulating about the study – and some of it is conflicting. Let's look at the study, the pushback, and what it could mean for marketers.

The Study

  • For one week in January 2012, Facebook chose a small portion (well, nearly 700,000) of its users for a study that removed or promoted posts based on the emotions they conveyed. Emotionally negative news feeds prompted users to post in a similar fashion, while more positive news feeds tended to produce more positive or happier posts.
  • Facebook maintains that it studied the minimal amount of users with the least amount of manipulation possible “to statistically detect” any findings. 
  • The study did not outwardly request Informed Consent from those being studied. Both Facebook and Cornell University, its Independent Review Board for the study, presented conflicting reports on whether or not an ethical review was performed before, during or after the study.
  • Facebook apologized – rather, one of the study’s authors released a statement on the social network – and has been vocal about “working on improving our internal review process” since the story broke in late June 2014.
  • While controversial and unsettling, Facebook appears to have acted legally under a basic research clause in its Terms of Service. It states that user’s behavior and information can be used for research purposes, which must be agreed upon before completing account registration. 

If you’re interested in more details, The Atlantic provides a complete list of everything known about Facebook’s current struggle.

The Pushback

Users and self-proclaimed social media commentators call the study unethical, saying that it intentionally manipulated people’s moods without their knowledge or consent. If moods can be manipulated by what people interact with, then what’s stopping Facebook – or any social network or media outlet – from “tailoring” its news feed?

Perhaps Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University who edited the study, sums up user outrage best:

“I was concerned…. Until I queried the authors and they said their local institutional review board had approved it – and apparently on the grounds that Facebook apparently manipulates people’s New Feeds all the time… I understand why people have concerns. I think their beef is with Facebook, really, not the research.”The Atlantic

What does this mean for marketers?

The study's findings may not be Earth-shattering, but people's trust in the network may be shattering to the ground. As consumers, we don't like being toyed with or manipulated. We can tell when a brand is being disingenuous or violating our user rights. The real findings of this story may be impact it plays on the future of the entire social network - and that does heavily impact marketers.

42% of marketers believe that Facebook is still the platform to be on for businesses. But this privacy violation may be the type of thing that prompts users to abandon the social network and find a new community to connect with customers. 

As a marketer, how does the study impact your feelings about Facebook, if it does at all?