Happy or sad, be careful what you post on Facebook

Alice Wu says the violation of privacy that permitted the Facebook study on 'emotional contagion' must not be condoned

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:17am

We chuckled when US President Barack Obama warned 30-plus high school students in 2009 to "be careful what you post on Facebook". But we're not laughing now, after researchers affiliated with Facebook, Cornell University and the University of California published their joint study on online "emotional contagion" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, sparking a global outcry.

It's no longer that our Facebook posts can land us in trouble; we've seen more than enough of that, not least the way it has encouraged cyberbullying. Now, we have to worry about our social media posts becoming potential material, and ourselves subjects, for human thought experiments.

What the researchers found wasn't exactly groundbreaking: that seeing friends' posts has an emotional effect on us, that the happier our friends' posts are, the happier we are.

Most of us already know this phenomenon from everyday life. When feeling down, most of us tend to try to stay away from those who emit "negative" energy - in other words, we tend not to seek out the pessimists in our lives. As social beings, we are susceptible to the influence of others. To see that extending into our online life doesn't take that big a stretch of the imagination.

The reason why Facebook, two top-notch universities and a prestigious scientific journal are now in trouble is, of course, how they went about conducting this otherwise no-brainer study. For a week in January 2012, some 700,000 people, without giving their consent, had their Facebook news feeds manipulated. Then they were studied to see whether their status updates were influenced by the filtered information.

So we've been told that, in the interest of science, almost 700,000 people's lives were made worse or better, and their moods altered deliberately. It's very much like playing God, which, naturally, makes the backlash very deserving indeed.

It is creepy. It reminds the world of all the disturbing human experiments conducted in the name of science during the second world war that eventually led to the Nuremberg Code, the ethical standards that mood-altering studies break. Among other things, the code requires the "absolutely essential" voluntary consent of the human subject, that subjects should have the legal capacity to give that consent, and that during the course of the experiment, subjects must be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end.

None of those principles were observed. It was a breach of ethics by highly educated, supposedly professional scientists who should've known better.

And here's another knock-on effect we don't need scientists to conduct experiments on. If we don't take protecting privacy seriously, people will become increasingly antisocial. Cyberbullying is at heart a violation of privacy. If we don't speak out against the obvious wrong in ganging up on a victim, then we're sanctioning bullying and wrongdoing, as long as it's done online. And that's a knock-on effect we should care about.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA