New Mega-Hit Case Study on Tech Ethics

New FREE Product: Algorithmic Allegories (Version 1.0)

In June 2014, people got emotional about Facebook.

That month, Facebook published the results of its “emotional contagion” study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In conjunction with researchers at Cornell, Facebook experimentally altered the algorithm that populates the News Feed, the primary activity and content list on Facebook. The goal? To explore if emotions can spread through Facebook. In the experiment, the algorithms for a random subset of users were manipulated to display either proportionately more negative emotional content or proportionately more emotional content; a control group saw content according to the current algorithm. The study found that the emotional nature of News Feed content does influence users’ moods, as indicated by their subsequent posts.

This was news to Facebook users, none of whom had volunteered for, opted into, or known about the study. Some found the invisible consequences of the algorithm chilling. Privacy activist Lauren Weinstein said, “I wonder if anyone killed anyone with their emotional manipulation stunt.” This impassioned response is the launching point of a new, free Advanced Problem Solving Workshop case, “Algorithmic Allegories (version 1.0),” spearheaded by HLS Professor Jonathan Zittrain.

Algorithmic Allegories chronicles the Facebook study controversy and the legal issues it introduced, as well as offering six related hypotheticals to probe the moral, legal, and technical implications of algorithms in our lives. By considering the use of algorithms in print media, charity, business, and other situations, participants form nuanced ethical positions on the Facebook Emotional Contagion study. Participants then engage in a class-wide debate about the study. Participants learn to assess the feasibility of implementing policy in a rapidly changing, technology-powered landscape; appreciate the responsibilities of those who use algorithms; write policy briefs; and advise clients.

Though the infamous experiment was conducted on a small fraction of users, Facebook data scientist Dan Farrell told Radiolab that “any given person is probably currentlty involved in ten different experiments” on Facebook alone. The pervasive use of algorithms begs for human consideration.

Sure enough, more than 100 customers have downloaded Algorithmic Allegories in its first month. See what the buzz is all about by downloading the case for free.

About Elizabeth Moroney

Case Studies Editorial Assistant
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