Was The Department Of Defense Behind Facebook Inc’s Controversial Manipulation Study?

facebookMichael Krieger: I’ve spent pretty much all day reading as much as possible about the extremely controversial Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) “emotional contagion” study in which the company intentionally altered its news feed algorithm to see if it could manipulate its users’ emotions. In case you weren’t aware, Facebook is always altering your news feed under the assumption that there’s no way they could fill your feed with all of your “friends’” pointless, self-absorbed, dull updates (there’s just too much garbage).

As such, Facebook filters your news feed all the time, something which advertisers must find particularly convenient. In any event, the particular alteration under question occurred during one week in January 2012, and the company filled some people’s feeds with positive posts, while others were fed more negative posts.

Once the data was compiled, academics from the University of California, San Francisco and Cornell University were brought in to analyze the results. Their findings were then published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They found that:

For people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.

You probably know most of this already, but here is where it starts to get really strange. Initially, the press release from Cornell highlighting the study said at the bottom: “The study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office.” Once people started asking questions about this, Cornell claimed it had made a mistake, and that there was no outside funding. Jay Rosen, Journalism Professor at NYU, seems to find this highly questionable. He wrote on his Facebook page that:


Strange little turn in the story of the Facebook “emotional contagion” study. Last month’s press release from Cornell highlighting the study had said at the bottom: “The study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office.”

Why would the military be interested? I wanted to know. So I asked Adam D.I. Kramer, the Facebook researcher, that question on his Facebook page, where he has posted what he called a public explanation. (He didn’t reply to my or anyone else’s questions.) See: https://www.facebook.com/akramer/posts/10152987150867796

Now it turns out Cornell was wrong! Or it says it was wrong. The press release now reads: “Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office. In fact, the study received no external funding.”

Why do I call this strange? Any time my work has been featured in an NYU press release, the PR officers involved show me drafts and coordinate closely with me, for the simple reason that they don’t want to mischaracterize scholarly work. So now we have to believe that Cornell’s Professor of Communication and Information Science, Jeffrey Hancock, wasn’t shown or didn’t read the press release in which he is quoted about the study’s results (weird) or he did read it but somehow failed to notice that it said his study was funded by the Army when it actually wasn’t (weirder).

I think I would notice if my university was falsely telling the world that my research was partially funded by the Pentagon… but, hey, maybe there’s an innocent and boring explanation that I am overlooking.


It gets even more interesting from here. The Professor of Communication and Information Science, Jeffrey Hancock, who Mr. Rosen mentions above, has a history of working with the U.S. military, specifically the Minerva Institute.


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