Like something straight out of a 1970’s Hollywood paranoia thriller, without telling them they were being experimented on, Facebook conducted an emotion-altering experiment on nearly 700,000 of its users. Some of them might have been children.
The experiment, which was conducted by Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, occurred over the course of a week in January of 2012. The only reason we know about it is Kramer and his two co-researchers published their results.
Facebook turned 700,000 human beings into unwilling lab rats by manipulating their news feeds. Some received only good or happy news. The others saw only bad and depressing news. The result was that those subjected to good news published more positive posts; those subjected to bad news published more negative posts.
What Facebook did wrong is obvious. First off, you don’t experiment on people without telling them. It’s highly unethical to make someone a guinea pig against their will or without them knowing. It’s fine to document normal behavior. Once you manipulate the environment, though, you are crossing a big fat ethical line.
Secondly, you don’t cast a wide net for unsuspecting guinea pigs because it is important to screen out those not psychologically prepared for your experiment. No scientist with any kind of conscience would subject a clinically depressed individual to an environment where he or she sees only bad news. The results could be fatal.
Facebook didn’t think or didn’t care about the reasonable possibility that, out of thousands the company manipulated into seeing only bad news, one or more might not be prepared to psychologically handle such a thing.
Forbes is reporting that Facebook might not have screened out minors. Though it would have been quite easy to do so, the company did not filter out 13-18 year-olds. The effect this kind of emotional manipulation would have on teenagers already made emotionally brittle by puberty is as hard to fathom as the soulless corporation that would do such a thing.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made no secret of the fact that his ambitions rise well above creating a worldwide social network. The powerful multi-billionaire has a number of pet social and political causes. His willingness to experiment on people mixed with a political agenda makes one wonder what else we don’t know about.
In 1974, the FCC made subliminal advertising illegal based on a faulty study that claimed photographs hidden in a movie would boost theatre concession sales.
Manipulating the emotional health of 700,000 unsuspecting people is far, far worse.
Currently, worldwide, 1-in-9 people have a Facebook account.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC