Recently we received a call from a man concerned that a family member may have been one of the un-witting participants in an emotion manipulation study carried out on 689,003 people worldwide by Facebook.

Facebook’s data scientists ran the experiment for a week in January 2012 to determine whether emotions were contagious. Random users had their status feeds manipulated to emphasise either happy or sad status updates from friends. The study recently came to light as the data scientists involved published their work. Facebook has confirmed the study.

The study is concerning and highlights the need to be careful online.

Facebook’s terms of use are accepted when you use the site and check “agree” in order to start engaging on the social network. We understand that there is some issue with whether or not the terms of use allowed the study in January 2012, although the current terms of use allow Facebook to undertake “research”. Facebook’s defence to the study seems to be that users know what they are signing up for when they create a profile.

Some commentators have defended Facebook by noting tests like this are common, and that marketers are constantly playing on consumer emotion. When engaging in media one expects to be influenced, whether by bright and happy ads encouraging you to buy, or by depressing sob stories designed to have you sign up for insurance. In the modern world one expects, and is not overly influenced by, these things.

Others disagree, and condemn the test for being designed to affect users’ moods rather than buying behaviour.

In terms of what action the caller can take, options at this stage include:

  1. Complaining to Facebook directly; or
  2. His family member might complain to the Privacy Commissioner if it turns out s/he in fact was an unwitting participant who had personal information used without consent.