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Facebook Study Blurs Ethical Guidelines

Facebook has published a study which Internet Psychologist Graham Jones believes was potentially unethical.

The research involved deliberately altering the emotional content of the timelines of almost 700,000 users of Facebook without their knowledge that this was being done. The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The participants in the study did not know that their timelines were being manipulated to alter its emotional content value.

According to Graham Jones this is borderline unethical. He said: “All research should get the informed consent of participants in advance of the study being undertaken. Whilst there are some exceptions to this, such as the results being significantly altered if people knew about the study in advance, it is considered good ethical practice to find ways around such limitations and allow participants to know about the research before being asked to take part.”

He added: “Even if you cannot inform people in advance, you should let them know once the study is completed so that they can decide whether data about them is included in the analysis. Some people may want such data destroyed and not used and they should be given this opportunity if you have not been able to get their prior informed consent to take part.”

Graham Jones also said: “The researchers appear to have treated this as data about words, rather than taking into account the psychological impact of what they were doing. The manipulation of timelines to provide either a more positive or more negative emotional experience for the users could well have had an impact upon them.”

There is some evidence of a link between social media use and low mood in some studies, said Graham Jones, which means that anyone manipulating social media timeliness needs to be especially careful.

“I do not think enough care and attention to the participants in this study was given,” said Graham Jones.

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Social media is less help to business than you might think

One of the benefits of social media is that you can use peer pressure to help change the minds of your potential customers. You can see this happening all the time, where individuals on Facebook or Twitter, for instance, recommend a product or service having made a purchase. The idea behind this is two-fold. Firstly, it increases awareness using word-of-mouth. But secondly, it also has a psychological effect whereby people are subtly influenced by peer pressure to consider the product or service, even if they have previously dismissed it.

Graphic depicting eletcronic word of mouthThe power of social influence to change minds is well-established. However, new research reveals an interesting twist to social influence: it does not last. The study from China, where the psychological power of social groups is significant, shows that peer pressure only lasts for a maximum of three days. It turns out that our opinion reverts back to our original thinking within 72 hours of apparently having changed our minds.

This is an important finding as it shows that our established thinking is long-lasting. We are not as open to change and social influence as we might think.

For businesses this is a significant finding. It means that you cannot rely on single instances of peer pressure and recommendations. Instead of asking your customers to recommend you once after a purchase they need to be recommending you every three days if their influence is to last.

This research ties in with other studies which show that the power of social media is related to the amount of work you do on it. That implies that if you want your business to benefit from social media and the resulting social influence it can have, then you need to be using it constantly. It is not a “once a week” thing or something you can do when you feel like it. If social networking is to have the influence you want, then you need to be constantly using the power of peer pressure it provides so that the three-day-effect does not happen.

The people you are targeting are going to return to their old ways of thinking about you unless you use peer pressure at least once in every 72 hours.

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