Sunday, June 29, 2014

Facebook "emotional contagion" Study: A Roundup of Reactions

In case you missed it, there was a dust-up this weekend around the web because of a social science study involving manipulation of Facebook news feeds of users (which might include you, if you are an English language user). Here are three points of contention (in order of intensity):
  • Ethics - Was there informed consent?
  • Statistical significance - The effect was small, but the data large, what does this mean?
  • Linguistics - How did they define and track "emotion "?
First, the original study itself:

Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Kramer et al. PNAS. Synopsis (from PNAS)
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.
My two cents: We'll never see the actual language data, so the many questions this study raises are destined to be left unanswered.

The Roundup

In Defense of Facebook: If you can only read one analysis, read Tal Yarkoni's deep dive response to the study and its critics. It's worth a full read (comments too). He makes a lot of important points, including the weakness of the effect, the rather tame facts of the actual experiments, and the normalcy of manipulation (that's how life works) but for me, this take-down of the core assumptions underlying the study is the Money Quote:
the fact that users in the experimental conditions produced content with very slightly more positive or negative emotional content doesn’t mean that those users actually felt any differently. It’s entirely possible–and I would argue, even probable–that much of the effect was driven by changes in the expression of ideas or feelings that were already on users’ minds. For example, suppose I log onto Facebook intending to write a status update to the effect that I had an “awesome day today at the beach with my besties!” Now imagine that, as soon as I log in, I see in my news feed that an acquaintance’s father just passed away. I might very well think twice about posting my own message–not necessarily because the news has made me feel sad myself, but because it surely seems a bit unseemly to celebrate one’s own good fortune around people who are currently grieving. I would argue that such subtle behavioral changes, while certainly responsive to others’ emotions, shouldn’t really be considered genuine cases of emotional contagion

the Empire strikes back: Humanities Professor Alan Jacobs counters Yarkoni, using language that at times seemed to verge on unhinged, but hyperbole aside, he takes issue with claims that the experiment was ethical simply because users signed a user agreement (that few of them ever actually read). Money Quote:
This seems to be missing the point of the complaints about Facebook’s behavior. The complaints are not “Facebook successfully manipulated users’ emotions” but rather “Facebook attempted to manipulate users’ emotions without informing them that they were being experimented on.” That’s where the ethical question lies, not with the degree of the manipulation’s success. “Who cares if that guy was shooting at you? He missed, didn’t he?” — that seems to be Yarkoni’s attitude

Facebook admits manipulating users' emotions by modifying news feeds: Across the pond, The Guardian got into the kerfuffle. Never one to miss a chance to go full metal Orwell on us, the Guardian gives us this ridiculous Money Quote with not a whiff of counter-argument:
In a series of Twitter posts, Clay Johnson, the co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama's online campaign for the presidency in 2008, said: "The Facebook 'transmission of anger' experiment is terrifying." He asked: "Could the CIA incite revolution in Sudan by pressuring Facebook to promote discontent? Should that be legal? Could Mark Zuckerberg swing an election by promoting Upworthy [a website aggregating viral content] posts two weeks beforehand? Should that be legal?"
This Clay Johnson guy is hilarious, in a dangerously stupid way. How does his bonkers ranting rate two paragraphs in a Guardian story?


Everything We Know About Facebook's Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment: The Atlantic provides a roundup of sorts and a review of the basic facts, and some much needed sanity about the limitations of LIWC (which is a limited, dictionary tool that, except for the evangelical zeal of its creator James Pennebaker, would be little more than a toy for undergrad English majors to play with). Article also provides important quotes from the study's editor, Princeton's Susan Fiske. This also links to a full interview with professor Fiske.

Emotional Contagion on Facebook? More Like Bad Research Methods: If you have time to read two and only two analyses of the Facebook study, first read Yarkoni above, then read John Grohol's excellent fisking of the (mis-)use of LIWC as tool for linguistic study. Money Quote:
much of human communication includes subtleties ... — without even delving into sarcasm, short-hand abbreviations that act as negation words, phrases that negate the previous sentence, emojis, etc. — you can’t even tell how accurate or inaccurate the resulting analysis by these researchers is. Since the LIWC 2007 ignores these subtle realities of informal human communication, so do the researchers.
Analyzing Facebook's PNAS paper on Emotional Contagion: Nitin Madnani provides an NLPers
detailed fisking of the experimental methods, with special attention paid to the flaws of LIWC (with bonus comment from Brendan O'Connor, recent CMU grad and new U Amherst professor). Money Quote:
Far and away, my biggest complaint is that the Facebook scientists simply used a word list to determine whether a post was positive or negative. As someone who works in natural language processing (including on the task of analyzing sentiment in documents), such a rudimentary system would be treated with extreme skepticism in our conferences and journals. There are just too many problems with the approach, e.g. negation ("I am not very happy today because ..."). From the paper, it doesn't look like the authors tried to address these problems. In short, I am skeptical the whether the experiment actually measures anything useful. One way to address comments such as mine is to actually release the data to the public along with some honest error analysis about how well such a naive approach actually worked.

Facebook’s Unethical Experiment: Tal Yarkoni's article above provides a pretty thorough fisking of this Slate screed. I'll just add that Slate is never the place I'd go to for well reasoned, scientific analysis. A blow-by-blow deep dive into the last episode of Orange Is The New Black? Oh yeah, Slate has that genre down cold.


Anger Builds Over Facebook's Emotion-Manipulation Study: The site that never met a listicle it didn't love, Mashable provides a short article that fails to live up to its title. They provide little evidence that anger is building beyond screen grabs of a whopping four Twitter feeds. Note, they completely ignore the range of people supporting the study (no quotes from the authors, for example). As far as I can tell, there is no hashtag for anti-Facebook study tweets.


Facebook Manipulated User News Feeds To Create Emotional Responses: Forbes wonders aloud about the mis-use of the study by marketers. Money Quote:
What harm might flow from manipulating user timelines to create emotions?  Well, consider the controversial study published last year (not by Facebook researchers) that said companies should tailor their marketing to women based on how they felt about their appearance.  That marketing study began by examining the days and times when women felt the worst about themselves, finding that women felt most vulnerable on Mondays and felt the best about themselves on Thursdays ... The Facebook study, combined with last year’s marketing study suggests that marketers may not need to wait until Mondays or Thursdays to have an emotional impact, instead  social media companies may be able to manipulate timelines and news feeds to create emotionally fueled marketing opportunities.
You don't have to work hard to convince me that marketing professionals have a habit of half-digesting science they barely understand to try to manipulate consumers. That's par for the course in that field, as far as I can tell. Just don't know what scientists producing the original studies can do about it. Monkey's gonna throw shit. Don't blame the banana they ate.


Creepy Study Shows Facebook Can Tweak Your Moods Through ‘Emotional Contagion’. The Blaze witer Zach Noble summed up the negative reaction this way: a victory for scientific understanding with some really creepy ramifications. But I think it only seems creepy if you mis-understand the actual methods.

Final Thought: It's the bad science that creeps me out more than the questionable ethics. Facebook is data, lets use it wisely.





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