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Why Are Social Media Experiments Considered An Invasion of Privacy?

Social Media is Very Personal

We all use it differently—which reflects the real world…we all socialize in different ways. But when news broke of social media experiments by popular channels, users were outraged. But why is our expectation of privacy so high on the very channels where we share the most?

Facebook’s 2012 experiment tested nearly 700,000 users’ emotional responses to their news feeds to vet a theory on the transferability of mood. Facebook manipulated users’ news feeds to show them content that was either predominately negative or positive, analyzing users’ emotional responses by examining verbiage and frequency in their own status updates.

Soon after, OKCupid admitted it had also experimented on users. To test users’ response to its match algorithm, OKCupid falsified its “match” data—pairs who were a low match (30%) were shown as a strong match (90%), and vice versa.

It’s no secret that Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about online privacy.

The TRUSTe Consumer Confidence Index 2014 showed that 90% of Americans are concerned about privacy in social media. Never has this been more evident than through the public’s response to the Facebook experiment—84% of users said they had lost trust in Facebook, and 66% considered deleting their Facebook accounts because of the experiment. Users said the experiment was using them as “lab rats.”

The responses show that users felt betrayed, that they felt used as pawns in psychological experiments drawn up to test the efficacy of the social media products themselves, that they had been lied to or given false information, and that the practices were unethical. The response revealed that users find this kind of experimentation unsettling and a serious breach of privacy.

The fury over the experiments is interesting because social media apps revolve around users voluntarily sharing information online. Many would argue that, by its nature, a social media platform is one where users should have the weakest expectation of privacy. Moreover, advertising companies have been using psychological studies to improve the efficacy and relevance of advertising for generations.

Lastly, the emotionally charged responses to the experiments do not typify what users say about privacy generally.

What makes social media experiments different, and what is responsible for the outrage?

A lot of discussion has centered on the lack of user consent and transparency, questioning whether the experiments were ethical. Sen. Mark Warner called for an FTC investigation, saying the experiment “invites questions about whether procedures should be in place for this type of research.” Several researchers, academics, lawyers, and media outlets have questioned whether the study complies with the APA’s ethical principles of psychological research.

These are all valid questions. Notice and consent are pillars of privacy — but I think that examining the public’s response shows that the issue is deeper. The outcry in response to the experiments indicates that users have two unique expectations of social media: heightened expectations of privacy and higher levels of trust.

These unique expectations can be drawn to the nature of social networks

Social media is where we share personal details, thoughts, and images with people we know (or, in OKCupid’s case, would like to know). It’s where we go to catch up with friends and family. It’s where we share personal milestones. These are personal, sometimes intimate, details. Despite the semi-public nature of information on social media, users have a different, higher expectation of privacy when they are present.

The response to the experiments also suggests that users have a higher level of trust in social media. This makes sense because the environment is personalized, it is curated, and it is our own. We go to social media to interface with “familiar faces”—we choose who we share this information with. Social media is a sort of online “home.” Law and society have long recognized the home as a sacred place, and experiments that manipulate our “online homes” may feel like the most serious transgression.

This article was first published in MediaPost on 8/20/14

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