Facebook breaks communications' golden rule with study scandal

Facebook's recently revealed study in 'emotional contagion' provoked angry responses from many internet users - and a pending inquiry from the Information Commissioner's Office. The response from the company not only showed a lack of understanding and empathy, but is a textbook example of how not to respond to a crisis, says Aspectus PR's Alastair Turner.

Facebook fail: Aspectus PR's Alastair Turner
Facebook fail: Aspectus PR's Alastair Turner

A golden rule in the realm of communications is: always listen to your user base (even when you’re in their bad books). Having long been seen as an entity so powerful and omnipresent that it could (for the most part) do as it pleased, Facebook broke that rule by conducting a study in which it manipulated news feed content.

While no stranger to controversy regarding its use of personal data, the move from focusing on income generation to the manipulation of emotions seemed to reach new levels of unwanted intimacy.

By creating filters to identify positive and negative lexis, its researchers used a sample of roughly 700,000 Facebook users, and split them into either seeing a predominantly negative or positive news feed, before analysing their posts to see if their mood had been altered.

The results were statistically significant [read: really quite small], but regardless of the result size, the fact it had any sway on the posts of people cued criticism regarding informed consent, the process of peer-reviewed research and the involvement of minors and users with mental illness who might have been negatively affected by a miserable-looking news feed.

When contacted by Forbes' Kashmir Hill for a statement, Facebook’s initial response mainly dealt with the legality of the study, as opposed to its ethics – a statement described by Hill as "a bit tone deaf". Mentioning the "strong internal review process" and that the experiment ran for only "a single week in 2012", the statement leaves the impression that Facebook’s PR team was having the week off.

For a heavyweight the size of Facebook – especially one found within the realm of social media – the response seems to hint at a distancing between itself and the small team responsible for the two-year-old study. Belatedly, COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted that "the company communicated very badly on the emotions study", and Adam Kramer, who co-authored the research report, stated he and his co-authors were "very sorry" for the anxiety caused.

Admirable though these apologies may be, they do beg the question as to why these individuals’ sentiments weren’t found in the initial response from Facebook.

This story is the latest in a consistently growing collection regarding data ownership and privacy with major companies. The use of consumers’ private data by websites and companies entrusted with said information is fuelling the Personal Information Management Systems (PIMS) sector. Amir Mizroch reports in the Wall Street Journal that data as a commodity are leading to the PIMS sector rapidly expanding.

He quotes recent projections by Ctrl-Shift that the sector could be one day be worth £16.5bn in the UK alone. Services such as personal ‘data vaults’, and cloud companies like the Respect Network, which allows people to trade their data with companies for added space, are on the increase as the full value of online information is slowly realised by the people who are its source.

For somebody in the communications industry, these latest controversies surrounding online data are somewhat troubling. The internet and specifically social media sites are an intrinsic part of all our daily lives. We’ve happily swapped data with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to name but a few – a transaction based on trust and a belief that they have a duty of care towards it. For brands operating online, that trust is vital and once lost is hard to rebuild. From trivial social posts to vital information regarding breaking news stories, there doesn’t seem to be a way to function without the internet being used in some form or another. So has my trust finally been broken?

In the words of Rachel Savage in Management Today: "I will keep feeding the beast, however begrudgingly."

Alastair Turner is global group director at Aspectus PR

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