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Facebook mood experiment: progressive or unethical?

Facebook conducted a social experiment designed to manipulate users’ moods without their consent for a week in January of 2012, leading many to a discussion of online ethics.
Bethan Owen, Deseret News Modified: July 7, 2014 at 5:12 pm •  Published: July 8, 2014
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Facebook conducted a social experiment designed to manipulate users’ moods without their consent for a week in January 2012, leading many to a discussion of online ethics.

The experiment, which was just revealed in a new study, presented around 700,000 Facebook users who logged on to the site with one of two randomly generated home pages, according to The Atlantic. One of the home pages featured mainly positive words, while the other contained predominantly negative words. The study found that users with the positive home page were more likely to post positive statuses, while users with the negative homepage posted more negative things, The Atlantic wrote.

None of the participants knew this experiment was underway.

“Facebook essentially sought to manipulate people's mood,” wrote Robert Kliztman of CNN. “This is not a trivial undertaking. What if a depressed person became more depressed? Facebook says that the effect wasn't large, but it was large enough for the authors to publish the study in a major science journal.

“This experiment is scandalous and violates accepted research ethics,” he concluded.

While the experiment itself may be controversial, argued Tarun Wadhwa of Forbes, the real worry is in the ease with which Facebook was able to conduct the experiment.

“We trust companies to provide us relevant information by ‘personalizing’ our experience, but we give little thought to the downsides,” he wrote. “While we are aware that websites are ‘optimizing’ content for us, we don’t think about how that constrains our experience. And the enormous amount of personal information that has been collected about us over the last decade will continue to be acted upon — the Facebook experiment was just a glimpse at what is ahead.”

We have divulged too much trust and personal information online, Wadhwa wrote, which has opened us up to manipulation on several fronts. “Companies (can now) use your background, details, and emotional state to coerce you into buying products you don’t need or paying higher prices than you normally would,” he wrote.