Facebook users know that it tracks their preferences, chooses the ads shown, and even suggests news links and feeds based on what it knows about our habits. And in turn, users often follow the suggestions and, even if not fully paying attention, the feeds that are on Facebook pages penetrate our consciousness. We choose this when signing up for Facebook services. Or did we?
It turns out that in January 2012, the company deliberately manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 randomly selected users to either positive or negative news feeds; the objective was to measure the impact of emotions on social media posts. According to the published study, researchers found that moods were contagious; users who saw more positive posts responded by writing more positive posts. And those who saw more negative posts responded with more negative posts of their own.
The uproar from the study is due to disclosure that the company did not get consent from individuals to participate in the research study, a violation of most academic research protocols. While Facebook stated that its one billion monthly users already gave blanket consent to the company’s research as condition of using the service, many critics suggest that the manipulation without consent is harmful and unethical.
Group Activities and Discussion Questions:
- Discuss ethics in business and marketing. Highlight the differences/similarities between ethical/unethical and legal/illegal.
- Poll students about their Facebook use.
- Give students a treat and let them access their Facebook pages in class.
- In groups, have the teams record the types of news feeds and ads they see. Categorize positive and negative feeds if possible.
- In groups, have each team select the category of ethics/legalities that they believe Facebook fits into and explain why.
Source: Bloomberg News, New York Times, other news sources