So what if I told you that you might be amongst the 689,003 Facebook users that may have been part of an experiment that looked at whether or not your emotions changed depending on whether something was negatively or positively consistent in your news feeds? Now, consider this – what if I told you that potentially that number was a lot higher if you consider that for every Facebook user with 100 friends the experiment could have had a large impact reach of more than 68 million (using the Sustain Group Social Impact Multiplier equation)?
Ok, consider this again – what if I asked the question of those Facebook users who were businesses (such as small business more specifically) who, at the time of the experiment, had either paid for advertising on Facebook or who had a Facebook social media engagement strategy in place but, unfortunately for them, had their message been positive yet unwittingly targeting those who were part of the negative news feed user group, that the entire strategy or paid advertising would have been both a waste of time and money for the period of the experiment?
Well it is all true and the thing that we have learnt from the experiment is that on the one hand Facebook really can change your emotions through manipulating your news feeds. The Journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
recently published the details of the experiment in an article entitled “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks.” - yes you hear it “Massive-Scale”.
Put simply the experiment looked at whether emotional contagion occurred between individuals on Facebook depending on what appeared in their newsfeeds. To help with the experiment researchers used an automated system that controlled the amount of emotional content that would appear thereby testing the result and, like the social impact multiplier method where a message disseminated by one person has the potential to reach a number of others and so on and so forth) the premise of the question appeared to carry a yes it does make a difference.
So, in reducing the number of positive posts that would appear in a newsfeed the outcome was that “people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” A conclusion seemed reasonable enough “emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”
Now if you are running a business then this sort of information about what drives consumers can be hugely valuable because it speaks to potential shifts in consumer behaviour based on emotional purchasing decisions. I mean just the other day I say an awesome positive advertisement for Air New Zealand with the use of messaging and imagery lending me to be a little homesick for the country of my birth but in passing the post on I found myself over whelmed with positive vibes about my kiwi brethren! Yet, the following day I saw a series of posts that were negative against a particular product based on what was happening in their supply chain – which draws an un-scientific and anecdotal conclusion that I buy happy and a decline sad!
But I wonder has this particular experiment gone too far in the sense of the ethics of it all and is it just fair to say it was an experiment without any real long term impacts on the emotions of those who unwittingly took part in it? I’ll give you an example – I am a member of the Board of Australia’s Peak Mental Health Body Suicide Prevention Australia where research does point to contagion being a part of cluster based suicides – which is also why policies exist to support how things should be reported in the public domain. In fact, our own Facebook page with more than 30,000 followers leans more to the positive and supportive posts as opposed to the negative because of the challenge contagion presents.
So, was it right to potentially manipulate the emotions of more than 600,000 people?
Consider this a study published in October of 2013 said companies should consider tailoring their own marketing strategies to women based on looks and appearance. As you would expect there was a torrent of negative commentary around the study and while it was a different group of research the correlation comes to the same sort of conclusion – manipulating emotions sells (well ok I am being a little unfair when it comes to the Facebook study).
The truth is we have known about the secret to selling for years which had, up until now, been all about consumer behaviour and, to a point, the role of marketers and advertisers is to convince us to buy stuff right? Of course they use imagery and all sorts of things to do that and in some cases its not a huge issue because we do know we are being sold to. Of course I draw the line at tobacco advertising because potentially encouraging someone to smoke is inviting health problems later on life – but has this Facebook study unveiled that an organisation that is in front of more than 1.23 Billion people on the face of the planet is able to manipulate our emotions?
What are the implications if Mark Zuckerberg and his team decide they want to back a specific presidential candidate? Are they able to put the automated system into play? What if they decided to enter the debate around freedom of speech in countries such as Egypt (which in mind is very important) do they have the ability to know the end game? And what if they decided that they basically didn’t like you or your business any more – could the same fate await through the ability manipulate your thinking? Is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook a new and more modern of Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation in so far as the positions they sometimes take on matters of public policy and importance (I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Rupert of course).
What do you think? Have we crossed a boundary where research like this is able to occur without us knowing it and should we reconsider the privacy and the ethics of what has happened?
In my personal view we need to have a conversation about this one! Please share your thoughts and comments. For the record it was actually a very interesting piece of research to read and I’m not sure what was the most frightening – sitting down on a Sunday to read it or the conclusions drawn!
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