Why so much fuss that Facebook “manipulated” emotions?

There has been a lot of fuss lately about an internal Facebook study which managed to be published in a scientific journal as I noted in passing about 3 weeks ago.

Emotional contagion by Facebook could be a new disease. A case of the medium creating the new disease! Heightened emotions can apparently be transmitted by Facebook. The researchers find that“emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness”. And emotional contagion is what turns a crowd into a mob. And as this work from MIT shows, “Good people can do bad things. Belonging to a group makes people more likely to harm others outside the group.”

The research consisted of manipulating Facebook feeds and seeing what happened. The paper, the journal, Facebook and Cornell University have been heavily criticised for their “lack of ethics” and many are back-tracking in CYA exercises. Retraction Watch writes:

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is subjecting a much-criticized study involving Facebook that it published just two weeks ago to an Expression of Concern. …. Critics — and there were many online — said the study violated ethical norms because it did not alert participants that they were taking part.

…… Here’s the Expression of Concern, signed by editor-in-chief Inder Verma:

……. When the authors prepared their paper for publication in PNAS, they stated that: “Because this experiment was conducted by Facebook, Inc. for internal purposes, the Cornell University IRB [Institutional Review Board] determined that the project did not fall under Cornell’s Human Research Protection Program.” This statement has since been confirmed by Cornell University. ……

But I find all the fuss a little hypocritical. Manipulation of the behaviour of others is the norm and the bed-rock for all human social intercourse.

Politicians manipulate – or try to – their voters. Demagogues manipulate individuals to create a mob. Artists and authors try to arouse emotions. Scientists try to influence their grant panels. We manipulate our friends and our family members. A leader manipulates his followers. Followers try to influence their leaders. All human cooperation is built on manipulation of behaviour. We try to manipulate our enemies. When we call it “manipulation” we disapprove but when we call it “motivation” it is to be admired. Obama tries to motivate Netanyahu but Bibi usually manages to manipulate Barack. Manipulation of behaviour by persuasion is fine but manipulation by coercion is frowned upon. Any advertisement – by definition – plays with the emotions of its target audience and tries to manipulate their behaviour.

So what is wrong then when a Facebook or a Google or a Twitter  – whose business model depends on placing advertisements accurately and effectively – tries to employ “emotional contagion” to maximise their revenues? I closed my Facebook and Twitter accounts some time ago partly because I did not like their intrusive nature. But that was because I felt that my personal space was being encroached on – and beyond the level I felt comfortable with. But I certainly did not feel they were doing anything unethical. In this case I find the criticism confused and a little inane. Was it unethical for Facebook to have conducted an “internal” study. I don’t think so. Was it unethical for PNAS to have published the paper? Not really.

If it is unethical for internet sites or social media to target advertisements then it is unethical for any advertisement to be targeted towards anyone.

The onus I think lies with the individual.



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