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Containment, a playground for the researcher who works on the impacts of Facebook

“When Facebook goes out, people spend more time with their loved ones” (Photo: Lyon, families play at Place Louis Pradel during confinement). BRUNO AMSELLEM / DIVERGENCE FOR “THE WORLD”

Chronic. Being confined for the past few weeks, we have all been subjected to very large-scale experimental manipulation. You take human beings and you impose economic stress, fear of illness, the presence of their families around the clock, seven days a week, the constant proximity of the fridge, an avalanche of videos, chats on WhatsApp, and no obligation to turn off Facebook – and what does it do?

Even if we knew how to compare before and after, the causality would remain opaque: not only are all treatments simultaneous, but there is no “control group” – that is to say, subjects who have not undergone this treatment.

There are, however, important questions, apart from health questions, to which this “experiment” could answer. Can we have productive economic exchanges without traveling as much as before? Are “face-to-face” meetings all necessary if you have Skype or Zoom? Are social networks addictive, and can this addiction harm our mental balance?

Fortunately, some researchers have thought of implementing more targeted experiments that shed light on these questions – for example on the effects of a withdrawal from Facebook on the behavior and well-being of a sample of American users, just before the 2018 mid-term elections (“The Welfare Effects of Social Media”, Hunt Allcott, Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer and Matthew Gentzkow, American Economic Review 110/3, 2020).

Four types of impact

The authors recruited a sample of 1,661 American users who said they were ready to shut down Facebook for a period of four weeks for a payment of $ 102. Half received a deactivation request, with automatic verification of the link to their page, the other half continued as before.

The researchers investigated four types of impacts: other activities that filled the time previously occupied by Facebook, monitoring of political information, the feeling of well-being at the end of the experiment, and the impact on the use of Facebook in the following weeks.

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First observation: when Facebook goes out, people spend more time with their loved ones, and not on other online activities.

Second observation, people are less interested in politics.

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