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Social Media Experiments & Public Health. To be or not to be?

So, I’m guessing you heard about the “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks“, no? That’s the official title for the Facebook study published in The Proceedings of National Academy of the United States of America that you’ve likely already heard about. In this study you have a Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer and two academics, Jamie Guillory of UC San Francisco and Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University, thatsubtly tweaked the news feeds” of approximately 700,000 Facebook users. The researchers used an algorithm for one week’s time to eliminate “negative” messages from some users’ news feeds. For others the algorithm eliminated “positive” messages. For a control group they simply deleted a random selection of messages. Here is the stated significance from the research results:

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

FacebookPrivacyExperimentThere has been quite a media frenzy around the study. Most of it has been negative. The most compelling of those arguments is around “informed consent”. The belief there is that even if we can agree that the results are of scientific importance (some don’t) and the methodology of the study is concrete (some don’t), it still violated the rights of research subjects. After the ethical calamities that are the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Project Chatter, informed consent essentially means that a research subject in a study needs to have basic information about the study, understand the nature of the experiment along with its risks and benefits, and have the ability to withhold consent without fear of harm or retribution.

However, there are also supporters of the study. Ethicist and lawyer Michelle N. Meyer states that as a private company Facebook is not subject to an academic institutional review board. She goes further to say that had it been, then this study would have likely passed muster. Supporters further state that, with social media being a relatively new phenomena, Facebook has a moral obligation to inform its users of the social or psychological impact of their website. It’s likely that studies like this will continue. With the media firestorm that erupted it is likely, though, that they will not be published. That comes with its own set of problems.

My concerns move into the realm of public health. As I mentioned in a 2011 post called “New Tools for Managing a Public Health Crisis“, data is the most important component in managing public health. With a successful suicide committed in this world every 30 seconds, mental health is a major public health concern. It takes precious time and resources to manage the health of a planet inhabited by 7 billion people. This is an interconnected planet, and a public health crisis knows no barriers and time does matter. One of the breakthrough lessons I received in my life was from Dr. Greg Smith, my graduate data mining professor at Xavier University. He explained that “like things tend to cluster”. This makes social media a great way to find the useful data needed to uncover a public health crisis. Social media technology enables two-way communication. As such, experts are turning to social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to not only communicate with the public about disease outbreaks and health issues but to also gather necessary data to discover outbreaks at their source. Social media can also be used to recruit medical volunteers to a location and align response efforts once on the ground. However, to make this all work, public health officials need to be given access to social media data, and this is often an issue.

So, ultimately, my feelings on the study are quite mixed. I am a staunch supporter of ethics. However, I am of the belief that this study passed the ethical bar. Even more, I have strong feelings on the topic of mental health. I do believe that social media, with all of its countless benefits, has a new and not yet verified impact on mental health. I believe that it is data that will help us understand ourselves in ways that we did not before, and that data can save lives.

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