Facebook, Market Research and Emotional Contagion

4th Jul, 2014

Facebook’s social experiment raises questions – about the future of both market research and the social media giant itself

You will have heard or read about the Facebook Emotional Contagion experiment, conducted onsite in January 2012, and published in the PNSA journal this year.

The company seems to be in at least two minds about how to respond to the criticism surrounding the project – on the one hand Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) is willing to apologise, on the other Monica Bickert (Head of Policy) argues that such projects are essential to their innovation strategy.

Let’s be clear about that innovation reference – the objectives in commissioning the research study, as stated by Alan Kramer, were to better understand the alleged negative impact of over-exposure to other people’s good times on individual self-esteem, together with concern that exposure to their friends’ negativity may lead people to leave Facebook altogether.

That aside neither response feels adequate when the project has broken the terms of their own data use policy. As Forbes has reported the reference to research was only inserted into the updated policy in May 2012 – four months after the research was conducted. The Wall Street Journal has also reported that proper steps weren’t taken to ensure all participants were aged 18 or more. And that’s not to mention any pre-existing psychological issues that may have been relevant.

While the cynics among us might regard the decision to publish the research as being their greatest mistake, that decision speaks volumes for a lack of concern about current sensitivities around data security and personal privacy. Indeed at the time of the project Facebook was responding to a warning from the Federal Trade Commission regarding their approach to personal data.

All this has come out at a time when the social media ecosystem is fragmenting at pace, amid signs of reduced Facebook engagement among younger audiences.

The research findings are of course fascinating and their implications huge. Reports have linked the study to controversy surrounding the recent Indian Elections not to mention an apparent relationship with a wider Pentagon programme on civil unrest. All of which brings the Filter Bubble arguments of Eli Pariser very much to mind.

And while Facebook appears unmoved by public concerns, the wider industry is rightly worried about the impact of the project on public confidence in the market research industry as well as individual likelihood to participate in research projects. These issues are covered very well by Leonard Murphy and Melanie Courtright here .

In conclusion, a fascinating and unprecedented study, the implications of which are genuinely profound – and yet one that is rightly being investigated by various authorities for the failure to adhere to some very basic, and very fundamental, research standards. Unfortunately it is the rest of us who are likely to pay the price for bringing research centre stage in the debates around data security and personal privacy.