What We are Learning About Internet Privacy

You probably heard of Facebook’s experiment testing and how its users were affected by the emotional content on their Facebook news feeds. The experiment, from a sociological perspective, was quite interesting. 600,000 Facebook users had their news feeds manipulated by the Facebook system to show certain types of content to specific people. Facebook then monitored how the statuses of the chosen individuals changed over the course of the experiment.

A portion of the users began to see a prevalence of negatively charged statuses, while another portion saw statuses that mostly expressed happiness, joy, excitement, or other positive emotions. By the end of the experiment, the Facebook users who had been exposed to negative posts were updating more negative statuses themselves, reflecting their more negative emotional state. Similar results were seen in the other half of participants, with statuses growing more positive after being inundated with other positive updates.

While these results are hardly surprising, they do have interesting implications for how strongly people are affected by the perceived emotional states of those around them. Many Facebook users, however, neglected to see the interest of these results when learning that Facebook had attempted to actively affect the emotional state of its users.

Christian Rudder, the founder of dating website OKCupid, recently published a blog post in which he explained his views on the subject: Anyone using the internet is likely going to be the subject of some type of internet social experiment. He went on to explain several of the experiments that OKCupid had conducted on its users and the results of those experiments. Some of them were more manipulative than the Facebook experiment.

Whether or not internet users object to being the subject of experiments, it is unlikely to make a difference. The websites need only add a line in their Terms and Services to gain legal permission from users to include them in the experiments. Ethical committees cannot penalize the websites in any discernible way, and the experiments continue to provide valuable information. Unless a major change is forced upon websites, then it will be business as usual.

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