Facebook’s Emotional Manipulation Study and Marketing Ethics


Facebook has faced something of a backlash recently for something that marketers might consider fairly inane: A/B testing. Facebook, without telling their users, manipulated feeds to show either positive comments and news or negative news to see what kind of emotional response this elicited amongst users. Facebook’s data scientists were trying to study the effects of “emotional contagion,” or whether someone’s mood is influenced by the moods expressed by their FB friends.

When word of the study got out, many of Facebook’s users were incensed. Many felt that their privacy had been violated and that they had been subjected to a study that they had not consented to. Many were irate that Facebook had tried to manipulate their feelings and emotions. Facebook has stated that language in their data use policy, which all users have to sign off on (but which few ever read) before using the service, gave them the approval they needed to conduct the study.

An important question that arises from FB’s study: what is ethical in marketing? Or at what point does trying to harmlessly influence your users into taking action (making a purchase, clicking through to a website, etc.) become potentially harmful personal manipulation or violation of privacy?

Here are a few quick tips on digital and social marketing ethics:

Be transparent.

Be upfront with your users about A/B testing and allow them to opt out if they choose too, just like you probably do with emails.

Respect peoples’ privacy.

Don’t try to acquire information about people that you yourself wouldn’t want to share.

It’s not enough to include appropriate language in your terms of use.

Yes, your terms of use statements may cover your bases legally, but if you’re doing ANYTHING that you think might upset users, you need to tell them through more visible channels (social, your website, etc.)

Don’t try to make people upset or angry.

Yes, we all want to drive conversions, and yes eliciting an emotional response is a good way to do that, but NOT if it means a negative emotional response like anger or fear.

When it comes to marketing, the best rule of thumb is to treat others how you would want to be treated.

And of course, this isn’t the first time Facebook has taken a course that infuriated its fans….