Good To Know: Facebook May Be Experimenting On You

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facebook experimentsOccasionally, we all get a bit worried about our privacy on the Internet. Who’s watching us? Why are they watching us? How can we prevent them from watching us? The reality is that most of information people know is because we let them know. One example of this that comes to mind is Facebook, of course.

It’s a given that Facebook has opened the door for big businesses to get in touch with their customers on a more personal level. After years of using simple surveys and sales records for demographic data, their social media following was added to the mix. With this kind of access to consumers, a new wave of social advertising exists using one simple word: Like. However, it’s not just businesses who are watching. Facebook is, too.

A Sociologist’s Playground

facebook experiments

As you may know, Facebook pages offer a variety of data types regarding demographics to their owners. Some of this information about the individual fans includes:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Countries
  • Cities
  • Language

At a surface level, this is very basic. Demographics typically utilize these types of data results anyway. The only difference is that every single bit of this data was acquired through entirely voluntary methods without the use of surveys, focus groups, or field research. Of course, that’s just basic demographic information. The social network has also created an entire sector of marketing targeted solely at the site. With that in mind, companies need to know exactly how well their page promotion efforts are working.

For that purpose, Facebook offers another set of data for page owners:

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  • Likes per week
  • Post reach
  • People talking about your page

As a given, this is only basic information that any average user could find if they wanted to create their own page. Facebook’s data collection goes a bit deeper than all this.

The Facebook Data Team

facebook users

Led by Cameron Marlow, deep within the many levels of Facebook is a small little group of about 12 researchers called the Facebook Data Team. Essentially, the entire purpose of his team is to collect general data from Facebook users’ actions. This data is very intricate and complete, and the type of information that they collect is actually very surprising.

At face value, the team “builds scalable platforms for the collection, management, and analysis of data” and “use[s] these platforms to help drive informed decisions in areas critical to the success of the company.”

On a vaguer note, the team also states that they “build tools and provide support for anyone at Facebook who would like to use our platforms to help make data-driven decisions or build data-intensive products and services.”

The team researches social media sharing patterns on a relatively consistent basis. For instance, their current Facebook cover photo appears to be cluster graph of sorts. In actuality, it’s a just section of a graph depicting the viral nature of the “what-my-friends-think-I-do” meme that recently took News Feeds by storm.

[Facebook Data Science]

What’s Collected

facebook users

I’m sure by now that you are begging to know the answer to this question: what does Facebook know about me?

Well, there’s the obvious stuff that we already covered. All of the standard demographic information (age, gender, etc.) is handed over to Facebook when you joined the site. Additionally, you can offer up information about the family members you have on Facebook, relationships that you are in, historical events on your timeline, and even products you buy. This may not seem like a lot, but much like pennies in a jar, this information adds up.

But that’s not all Facebook collects. Using a tool called open graph integration, Facebook creates a type of personal “web” that connects all of a user’s Facebook-connected activities across the Internet. Each time you allow an app access to your Facebook account or use something Facebook-related on another website, this is part of open graph.

So whenever you play a song using an app like Spotify, Songza or Deezer, Facebook knows you listened to it regardless of whether you “liked” it or shared it with anyone. This allows for Facebook to view societal trends.

At its core, this is just a simple way of saying, “Okay, Facebook. You’re allowed to follow me into these parts of the Internet to see what I’m doing.”

[Facebook Developers]

Into The Lab

facebook experiments

The MIT Technology Review states that the Facebook Data Team once decided to “experiment with the way Facebook works, tweaking the site – the way scientists might prod an ant’s nest – to see how users react.”

Below is a section from the article that explains the details of an experiment conducted by Eytan Bakshy, who collaborated with Marlow in an effort to learn more about Facebook’s users.

So he [Bakshy] messed with how Facebook operated for a quarter of a billion users. Over a seven-week period, the 76 million links that those users shared with each other were logged. Then, on 219 million randomly chosen occasions, Facebook prevented someone from seeing a link shared by a friend. Hiding links this way created a control group so that Bakshy could assess how often people end up promoting the same links because they have similar information sources and interests.

He found that our close friends strongly sway which information we share, but overall their impact is dwarfed by the collective influence of numerous more distant contacts—what sociologists call “weak ties.” It is our diverse collection of weak ties that most powerfully determines what information we’re exposed to.

As you can tell, the answer to whether Facebook is experimenting on its users or not is obvious. Granted, it didn’t really hurt anything, but one item to take into consideration is the knowledge of the experiment’s subjects. When you sign up for Facebook, you automatically agree to the terms and conditions. In this case, users were automatically inserted into the experiment theoretically unaware.

Throughout all of this, social engineering is the keyword that we need to focus on. In April of this year, (upon Zuckerburg’s girlfriend-turned-wife’s insistence and his own will-power) Facebook was used as a way to increase organ donor registrations. How? A little box appeared on the Timeline that allowed users to let their friends know that they were registered donors. Apparently, possibly through public notifications alone, enrollment increased in 23 out of 44 states. Similarly, this past American election allowed for users to let their friends know that they had voted.

Cameron Marlow told the Review that this type of technology could be used by others on Facebook. That said, one can infer that it could eventually be just another type of social advertising. Rather than utilizing testimonies from paid actors or random individuals, companies could simply use people that you already know. In simple terms, this is just an upgrade to old form demographic data.

[Technology Review]

Well, Is It Evil?

Facebook isn’t technically doing anything wrong. However, the site defines itself as a social network as opposed to an online research center. Is it right to experiment on users without letting them know in a more obvious manner?

For more articles on Internet privacy and security, check these out:

Hw do you feel about Facebook experimenting on you? Now that it’s out in the open, will this change your social media habits?

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