The journal ‘Science’ published a report in May 2015 after “analyzing how 10.1 million of the most partisan American users on Facebook,” saying researchers found people’s networks of friends and the stories they see lean toward their ideological preferences. Then last month, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed homosexual marriage to be constitutional across all 50 states.
Shortly after the decision, more than 26 million people changed their Facebook profile pictures to a rainbow filter in support of homosexual marriage. While it seems like a lot, there are 1.44 billion monthly active users on Facebook globally, so it translates as about 1.8 percent of total users.
But the filter may have actually been Facebook’s way of performing psychological testing on users. Experts say that by setting up the tool, Facebook was able to get an insight on how to influence their users.
“This is probably a Facebook experiment!” wrote the MIT network scientist Cesar Hidalgo on Facebook. “The question is, how long will it take for people to change their profile pictures back to normal.”
Facebook has denied the claim: “This was not an experiment or test, but rather something that enables people to show their support of the LGBTQ community on Facebook.”
But Facebook has long been involved in research to better see how information spreads in a social network. For instance, in March 2013, the company published a study that looked at the factors that predicted support for marriage equality through its network.
Back in 2014, Facebook conducted psychological experiments on its users without their knowledge. The social media giant studied how different users’ moods and statuses reflected what they saw on their own news feed, even going so far as to cater specific content to users to find out how it would affect their own mood.
And if your Facebook friends suddenly debuts a patriotic American flag filter this weekend, it may not simply be they’re excited about the Independence Day holiday, rather it might be in response to all the rainbow flags. So remember, amid the social media onslaught for hearts and minds, as WaPo’s Peter Moskowitz writes, “…holding up a victory flag without acquiring the battle scars is an empty gesture at best.”
And it’s even emptier if the ‘gesture’ is actually part of a greater social media experiment.