Social Networks

A Company’s Desire to Do Good, but Need to Make Money, in Relation to Facebook’s Platform Optimisation and Mass-Scale Emotional Contagion


Social networking platforms facilitate the creation of networks across borders and cultures, but this highly interconnected world is vulnerable to manipulative business practices such as emotional contagion in favour of growth and success. This paper identifies and examines the potentail reasons Facebook are employing mass-scale emotional contagion to manipulate users on its platforms for monetary gain. The paper concludes that it is likely given the context that Facebook have a history of unethical business strategy and are optimising their user’s behaviours to increase profits from channels such as advertising.


Our digitally interconnected world grows closer as more of the population jumps online to donate their data, frequently in the form of content; content which by virtue of consisting of data, typically brings more value to the companies collecting it, than the people engaging with it. This paper will examine how the convergence of data science and psychology has allowed for mass-scale emotional contagion on social networking platforms, and we theorise whether platforms like Facebook are manipulating networks of users with these techniques for monetary gain. In further detail, this paper will discuss how this pre-internet pyschological theory has the potential to be employed by technology companies to analyse and optimise the data collection for the advertising revenue model being utilised. Although social media platforms facilitate the formation of strong networks, the companies behind them can utilise these networks in conjunction with manipulative and unethical business strategies such as emotional contagion, to benefit their bottom line.

What Is Emotional Contagion?

Emotional contagion describes the transfer of positive and negative moods of one person to another (Kramer, et al., 2014, 2) and is well established in laboratory experiments with in-person interactions (Fowler & Christakis, 2008, 1). A longitudinal study over 20 years suggests that longer-lasting moods such as happiness and depression can be transferred through networks as well (Kramer, Guillory & Hancock, 2014). This means that emotional transfer from person-to-person can take place without in-person interaction. The billions of people who use social networking platforms, like Facebook, are subjecting themselves to possibly long-lasting emotional disturbances as a result of their online interactions. The emotions of one friend are transferred to another as an idea was theorised in a study from 2012 in which 689,003 Facebook users were materially unaware they’d signed up as test subjects for an experiment to determine whether expressed emotional sentiment of a third-party (another user) could manipulate their behaviour through emotional contagion (Kramer, Guillory & Hancock, 2014). The study, conducted by Kramer, Guillory and Hancock, hypothesised correctly that emotional contagion can occur via text-based computer-mediated communication. It found that people’s emotional expressions in the form of posts on Facebook can predict their friends’ emotional expressions on Facebook in the days following initial exposure. The use-case of this test was enabled because a social network user engages most heavily with content in their ‘news feed’ which is entirely determined by the platform. Although preferential bias can vary across the digital landscape, algorithms created by social media platforms are typically used to rank content in a user’s news feed based on metrics which determine its relevance and popularity (engagement). If these algorithms are effective, engagement rate of the users increase, their overall experience increases and their attention is retained for longer periods (Wong, Liu & Chiang, 2016, 1-3).

The 2012 study focused on two questions; whether the exposure to consistent categorical emotions led users to change their own posting sentiments, and whether those posting behaviours were consistent with the expressions they were initially exposed to. The test subjects were split into two variable groups. One group was exposed to a bias of positive expressions by their friends within their news feed, and the other group was exposed to a negative bias of content from their friends in their feed. Facebook was able to control the emotional sentiment of content appearing in the test subjects’ news feeds because the news feed posts were categorised automatically based on an algorithm trained to spot positive or negative words as defined by the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software (LIWC2007). The study found that mass-scale emotional contagion is achievable by manipulating what a user interacts. The study found that there was a strong correlation between those subjects who were exposed to negative expressions posting their own negative-leaning content following exposure, and the opposite was true for those exposed to positive expressions from friends. Although Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board for Human Participant Research (IRB) approved the study (“Research with Human Participants | Cornell Research Services”, 2020), Kramer and his research colleagues did not gather informed consent from the subjects (Kleinsman, Buckley, 2015, 182). Wide-spread public scrutiny ensued as the research group appeared to have inadvertently uncovered a more sinister side of Facebook. With this in mind, we address the likelihood that Facebook is employing this technique for greater monetary reward.

The Facebook Business Model

In order for Facebook to benefit monetarily from emotional contagion, the behaviour of users on the platform must affect the business model at one of the crucial stages for success, which we can break down into a few large components. First, if the end-goal is to generate revenue for the company in the form of advertising from third-party companies marketing their products and services on the platform, Facebook must ensure that there are in fact users on the platform to market to. Secondly, we must assume that users are regularly engaging with their connected networks on the platform in order for the third-party advertisers to have any chance of reaching them. If Facebook has ‘x’ users and ninety-five per cent of them are not regularly engaging with the platform, advertiser’s marketing efficiency or ‘marketing return on investment’ (MROI) will decrease. A decrease in MROI describes a scenario whereby a marketing team’s promotional spend becomes less efficient (Gallo, 2017). The platform must pulse user sentiment to ensure their experience is not diluted by adverts to such a degree that the user is discouraged from using the platform. This can be referred to as user experience design (UX). A user whose ‘news feed’ is inundated with advertisements, is unlikely to remain an engaged user on the platform, as they’re ‘put-off’ by poor UX. Social networking platforms like Facebook must therefore find a balance between boosting revenue in the short-term at the risk of providing a poor UX, and wasting an opportunity to increase revenue without detracting from UX before the user’s breaking-point. Third and finally, Facebook must provide the tools necessary for advertising partners to target and engage with potential customers effectively. Powerful advertising tools can increase marketing efficiency and MROI by tailoring adverts to a specific target audience, which encourages advertisers to increase budget allocation through the channel (Tarran, 2018).

Advertising Partners 

Advertising partners are the key for Facebook to generate profits and grow as a company. An advertiser on a digital platform can be described as any person or organisation which stands to benefit in any way by reaching certain demographics of the public. They deliver value in ‘order to generate profitable and sustainable revenue streams’ (Yang, Kim & Dhalwani, n.d.). The ‘advertiser’ has several ways to improve their efficiency, including; media mix modelling and price modelling, but we’re going to focus on user targeting (Xie & Liu, 2018). User targeting is the ability to reach the right demographic at the right time for improved marketing efficiency with the help of segmentation tools, recommender systems and prediction modelling for conversion. An advertiser must be displaying adverts to potential customers, not users which are outside of their target demographic. Simultaneously though, the advert must be shown at the right time to encourage purchase. (Xie, Liu, 2018, 1). It is clear given the amount of revenue generated from advertising on Facebook and its subsidiaries such as Instagram, this component of the business model has proved astronomically successful. The targeting tools provided by Facebook for advertising partners has encouraged them back to the platform for deployment of bigger and more elaborate budgets and campaigns for promotion. In 2019 Facebook generated $70.1b USD in revenue, with $69.7b USD of that generated from digital advertising. This figure is up from $55.8b USD in 2018, and $40.6b USD in 2018. The strong growth in digital advertising revenue year-on-year correlates strongly with Facebook’s user base growth (“Facebook Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2019 Results”, 2019). With a base understanding of Facebook’s business model and its success over the last decade in particular, we must next determine whether Facebook would have been potentially benefiting from mass-scale emotional contagion.

The Benefits To Facebook Of Effective Emotional Contagion

Understanding this business model informs us that Facebook must keep users on the platform in order to generate digital advertising revenue. If Facebook has resolved that they’re able to control the emotional sentiment of a user’s news feeds such that they’re attention and engagement rates are increased, it’s entirely possible they’re doing so for greater monetary reward with little regard for public health. Andrew Kramer, who designed the infamous 2012 study, stated publicly that ‘we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook’ (D’Onfro, 2014). This declaration from the person who designed the study, applied for and was approved the funding through Cornell University, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) on behalf of Facebook’s research term suggests the company had a motive to understand and then manipulate user behaviour for their own benefit. Studies have shown that teenagers who spent a week off Facebook were happier than a test group which continued their average daily usage of the social media site (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers & Martin, 2018). The business paradox being experienced by Facebook reads that at some point, a company’s need to make money will be at odds with its desire to do good. Facebook’s goal to ‘bring the world closer together’ (Facebook – Resources, 2019) is at odds with shareholder pressure and c-suite greed for increased profits. This declaration from the research team at Facebook may suggest an ulterior motive drove the research, namely, profits and suggests Facebook has built a platform capable of optimising behaviour through user interface design (UI) to increase engagement.

User Interface/User Experience Design and Optimisation

Digitally inclined companies around the world have at their disposal, tools which can assist data scientists in optimising both UI/UX to increase profits by both reducing costs or increasing revenue. Facebook employs large teams of data scientists to optimise its platform for profit (“Gaining insights to deliver meaningful social interactions”, n.d.). The precedence has therefore been set that Facebook are willing to manipulate their users in order to eek out greater profit margins. Data scientists in Facebook’s Core Data Science (CDS) team use resources at their disposal to engage users through various channels (“Core Data Science (CDS) – Facebook Research”, n.d.) If a user isn’t on the platform and scrolling, the sole priority of these teams is to entice the user back onto the platform, and then secondarily to keep them there. This two-part goal is achieved through psychological tricks founded on B. F. Skinner’s 1930 Harvard study about the ‘Reinforcement Theory of Motivation’, tricks which users are typically unaware of (leslie, 2016). ‘Reinforcement Theory of Motivation’ describes ‘specifically how people learn behavior and learn how to act’. Amongst other human behavioural psychology tricks, Facebook uses validation, variable rewards and haptic output and investment theory and the in-app infinite-scroll design to eliminate pagination and thus reduce engagement friction less interruption (Amutan, 2014, 682).

To achieve an optimally efficient output of these two commonly used techniques, a platform must optimise rudimentary ideas which have the potential to lead to increased engagement. Facebook has been utilising optimisation tools such as A/B testing, which pits one variable against another, to determine which performed optimally per the goal of the test. For example, if a Facebook have a goal to increase click-through rate (CTR) from a certain class of notification, an A/B test could determine which copy performs optimally against the other by attracting more users back onto the platform. By running this simple test through millions of interactions, Facebook is able to accurately analyse their user’s preferences and optimise how regularly they return to the platform (Benbunan-Fich, 2017, 20). An increase in user engagement results in greater average screen time in applications, which in turn results in more display advert views, and thus greater revenue from advertising.

Unethical Business Strategy Precedence

Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has been accused previously of unethical business strategy, first in alledgedly copying the idea for the platform off two Harvard colleagues, the Winklevoss brothers (Ionescu, 2011), and more recently, along with other executives at the company, for favouring revenue over the best interest of users (Kleinsman & Buckley, 2015). One such example can be seen in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Clear abuse of the powerful targeting tools on the platform were employed by foregin agents to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election (Mueller, III, 2019). In the fall-out of this ground-breaking realisation that the fate of a country’s leadership spill could be affected by purchasing a relatively low-cost amount of digital advertising space, Facebook has shockingly affirmed their position for the current 2020 election race, stating they will not be removing politically motivated content purchased by campaigners in the lead up to voting in November of 2020 (Millman, 2019). Zuckerberg is on the record stating ‘people should be able to judge for themselves the character of politicians. The contentious point of this stance is the apparent swarm of ‘fake news’ on the site by advertisers looking to benefit without concern for the real-world implications of their actions (Figueira & Oliveira, 2017). Multiple foregin agents whether operating exclusively for personal gain, or as part of larger governmental departments are tipped to attempt some sort of interference in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election (McFaul, 2019, 18-20). Facebook’s non-action again questions the moral compass of its executive team.


Facebook and its subsidiaries facilitate billions of interactions each day around the world. As an entity it has the power to tweak and adjust the platform however the executive team deems necessary, confident that users have never read, nor will ever read the terms of service which state they’re handing control to Facebook and its researchers for participation in research. Facebook has proved time and again it’s capable of optmising the platform for monetary benefit through strong recommendation and algorithmic targeting for advertising partners, which have driven profits at nearly unprecedented rates in the last decade. Zuckerberg and the executive team have set a precedence of making unethical business decisions in favour of profits, and finally the research team at Facebook prove that users are materially unaware of the power they give to the company by way of manipulating behaviour and emotions. Given the context of these discussions, it’s evident and likely that Facebook is utilising emotional manipulation techniques of its users on a mass-scale in order to optimise revenue generation from digital advertising.


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18 replies on “A Company’s Desire to Do Good, but Need to Make Money, in Relation to Facebook’s Platform Optimisation and Mass-Scale Emotional Contagion”

Hi Nicholas
I was very interested in your paper as I have also tackled an aspect of FB in regards to truth vs lies, your piece is really interesting around the whole emotive drivers behind FaceBook.
You mention “The billions of people who use social networking platforms, like Facebook, are subjecting themselves to possibly long-lasting emotional disturbances as a result of their online interactions.” this really got my attention especially having kids that spend a lot of time on social media, this is devastating stuff.
Your references and description of the business model and tie into the emotional divisiveness of Facebook is well expressed and figures like $70bil are mind blowing and really highlights what a powerful organisation FaceBook is.
Very well put together I enjoyed reading your work, my question is can you think of any safeguards we could put in place to better protect people from the negative impacts that are inherent in the Facebook operating model?



That’s the big questions isn’t it! I feel like if one of us had a water-tight solution we’d be snapped up by a tech company, Pronto!

Thank you for your response. These topics surrounding Facebook are fertile ground for discussion, that’s for sure!

Hello Nicholas!
I liked how you called data creation “donating their data”. Very interesting word choice!
The points you brought up, such as emotional contagion, were fascinating to read about. I enjoyed the emotional contagion part, especially the “emotional contagion can occur via text-based computer-mediated communication”. It reminds me of an Instagram I follow, called tinykindnesses. They post stories of little to big kindnesses witnessed in everyday life. Reading them definitely improves my mood and makes me feel better about life as a whole. I liked that you discussed a few studies as well to support your emotional contagion point.
I would have liked more university grade language choice, but it was still a good read.
Do you have personal motivations behind the piece? Do you think society would benefit being aware of the emotional manipulation behind marketing on social media?

Thanks for your comments, Anne-Marie. Donating data as a term seems to resonate with a few people I’ve discussed it both on and offline. Many people fail to realise that if you’re not paying for a product online, it’s likely that you are the product being sold… Google doesn’t charge because the more people asking queries, the more revenue they’re able to generate through advertising.

I wonder how many of the current Facebook user base would pay for the service if it meant their data wasn’t going to be used to sell them products? A premium version which respects the privacy of users more diligently..

I certainly have personal motivations behind the piece, though in my planning I explicitly tried to remove my bias, listing my pre-existing beliefs and how I can avoid leaking these through speculation. This is hard to do, but if you’re asking for clarification, perhaps I did a good job at that.

Honestly, I think it’s in the best interest of society to understand how they’re being manipulated, but at the same time I doubt anything would change… people know that smoking kills – but people still smoke. Addiction is (and I’m not an expert) stronger than the fear of consequences they bring.


Hey again Nicholas!
Great continuation of discussion – I enjoyed reading your reply.
I feel many people would sign up for a premium Facebook depending on the cost and their individual financial situation. You have a good point with how people ignore risks. You could compare it with the current pandemic, how people avoid talking about it and want to pretend it’s not there – same with data mining. Do you agree with this comparison? Do you think many people at all would leave Facebook if made aware of the risks?
I guess it’s really privacy versus convenience, as it is the main social media everyone has, so it’s also the best place to message people, and make events, and so on.
I personally would sign up for a premium Facebook, as long as it was under $30 a year. It does make sense that Facebook would try to capitalise on how many users are constantly sharing information as they would make a lot through that, and I’m sure it would be costly to pay a whole company…
You did a great choice with removing personal bias – I was interested to know why this topic compared to the others.

Hi Anne-Marie

Annoyed I just saw this reply, what a shame we couldn’t continue this discussion during the conference period.

Honestly I think the majority of Facebook users would continue to use the service because it appears that the ‘nothing to hide’ argument about personal privacy is still the dominant thought among society. As an extremely private person myself I’m regularly questioned by people who ask why I’m so active in remaining private online who end up saying “I’ve nothing to hide so what does it matter?”. I then usually either say “why don’t you give me your unlocked phone for a while and let me browse through everything” which is usually met with hesitation haha.

Alternatively I encourage them to consider that saying “I’ve nothing to hide” is similar to “I’m not hungry so why do we need soup kitchens”, just because you’re fortunate to not be in a position of vulnerability, that isn’t the case for millions of people around the world. We’re lucky in Australia that privacy from government is relatively in check, unlike in some of our neighbouring south-east asian countries where minority groups simply cannot be themselves online in fear of punishment.

As for your paid-version subscription idea, I’d say it’s highly likely that Facebook have considered this and concluded that taking data is just more valuable than the hassle of payment systems, providing extra value for premium members, and then segregating data collection from premium and data-donaters of the free version.

Hi Nic,

A very well constructed and argued paper. I was interested too in the ’emotional contagion’ section because it related somewhat to my own paper on the benefits of Social Media to connect and inform people during epidemics – but particularly to unite them in the need to do something to prevent the spread of disease. I guess the emotional contagion of ‘fear’ is in some way utilised by health professionals in order to encourage widespread compliance with social distancing and isolation in that example. It is not good to make people ‘fearful’ of something, however it is arguably necessary to evoke that emotion for enough people to be encouraged (coerced?) to make a difference.

But back to your paper – something that astounds me is the way our own mobile phone seems to be listening in on private conversations today. No sooner will I have spoken on the phone with my daughter about (for example) a holiday destination or a product, and that very day, or the next one, I will have a whole heap of advertisements pop up on my Facebook newsfeed that relate to that exact destination or product. That, to me, is a real manipulation of privacy.

Another thing that resonates with me in relation to “A Company’s Desire to Do Good, but Need to Make Money, in Relation to Facebook’s Platform Optimisation and Mass-Scale Emotional Contagion” is the use of Social Media – particularly Instagram and Facebook, by individual network marketers now. The ‘live well, eat well’ entrepreneurs who say they are in business because they ‘desire to do good’ but who are really selling expensive multi vitamins for their need ‘to make money’. They are using a mass-scale emotional contagion of ‘be a Boss Girl Babe like me and you’ll never need to work a 9 to 5 job in your life again,’ it is basically just a rehash of the old Amway model of the 1960s/70s, but it uses the ‘mass marketing’ power of social media platforms to ensure that you don’t run out of ‘friends’ to spruik your business model to. It’s not illegal and it’s still a ‘buyer beware’ market, but is it ethical? I’m not sure.

It’s a thought provoking topic that’s for sure.

Hi Leanne,

Thank you for the thoughtful comments. An insightful response and a classic example of social entrepreneurship in 2020 using old multi-level-marketing techniques from the 60s/70s. Suddenly everybody is a business-guru flaunting their wares to a curated audience. Good for them I guess, though I exercise steady caution. It’s certainly a great opportunity for anyone who isn’t concern with ethical business strategy to take advantage of customers with a less-critical eye.

Hi Nicholas, great paper!
You weren’t explicit, but I get the impression that if Facebook does use emotional contagion as a means of profit, you think they shouldn’t? It would be unethical?

It occurs to me that such psychological tricks are widespread throughout all forms of advertising. When you walk around the supermarket, they use things like ‘anchoring’ to influence you in ways you aren’t aware. If we stop Facebook, should we stop everyone?


Hi Luke

You’re right to ascertain my hesitation in speaking about the issue from a point of moral certainty, which I think far too many ‘journalists’ are guilty of nowadays. It feels as though a lot of content being published was written with an end-point in mind before research began. If I’ve been guilty of it myself here that wasn’t my intention. It’s a little frustrating that some writers get a bee in their bonnet about something and then go out and find the evidence to draw their conclusion. I find pieces of journalistic material which demonstrably uncover a deduction much more engaging.

Let me give you an example in pop-culture, the documentary ‘Icarus’ by Bryan Fogel began with the intention of x, and because of his extensive research and investigative skills, ended up uncovering a major issue related to the initial topic. No surprise it was a hit, and won an Oscar I believe!

Of course, marketing exploits the psyche of the consumer, and the argument of ethics and whether certain techniques cross the line are ongoing. I think there are many unethical marketing techniques used by companies in all industries (sports betting adverts during live sporting matches for one). So kudos to us right now for realising that, but it would be asinine to think we haven’t been a victim of psychological tricks played on us by marketers in the past. From here though, education is the only way forward, if you understand how someone is trying to take advantage of you, it’s much easier to see through it.

Pardon my rambling!

Hi Nicholas

That sounds right to me, since education about the psychological tricks in marketing can diffuse their effectiveness, it’s a high priority to spread that education far and wide.

The ongoing nature of the ethical (and legal) debates means we can’t just wait for psychological tricks to be forbidden or we will be even more manipulated in the meantime.

Let’s continue to spread the message! 🙂


Hey Nicholas,

I really enjoyed reading this article, I think it’s really relevant and important to be aware of! Of particular interest to me was your section on the UI/UX Design on Facebook. Most of us are probably familiar with Facebook hiding the number of likes a few months ago, and recently bringing them back. My understanding of showing the number of likes was that Facebook was utilising the phenomenon Cialdini (1984) described as social proof, where people are inclined to emulate each other’s actions in a social situation. This would appear to be an effective way of encouraging emotional contagion, so removing the number of likes on Facebook seems somewhat counterintuitive. Do you have any thoughts on what Facebook was trying to achieve by removing likes in this context?


Good pick up Sam. I think removing the likes has been a half-baked attempt to gain good karma by Facebook. Country by country is different, and same with devices and platforms. For instance, you can see like aggregates on web versions of instagram, but on iOS on existing accounts they’re removed. For new accounts it’s sometimes all displayed.

Another potential thought was that although ‘x goals’ has become a yawn inducing fomo driven attempt from users for social proof, perhaps removing likes and therefore the anxiety of not accumulating as many as someone else, has actually promoted more content to be published?

I agree with this – it certainly came across as an ‘experiment’ and that indicated to me that it could have been more of PR stunt than anything. I certainly think that your second point – the removal of anxiety by comparing yourself with others – was the motivation for Instagram, where there is both a younger audience and self-concept is much more front-and-center. Perhaps Facebook wanted to see if that transferred across, but it certainly strikes me as a counter-intuitive business decision for, especially from the perspectives outlined in your paper.

A further thought – do you think Facebook would ever look to damper their emotional contagion through tactics like this in order to develop a more sustainable future for them, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and increasing political pressure? In that it wasn’t just an attempt at good karma, but also an attempt to see how much finer control they have over the effects outlined in your paper?

Good question – I think it’s safe to assume that all tech companies maintain a healthy level of anxiety about being overtaken by the next big thing, and this would certainly dictate—to some extent—the decisions they make moving forward.

A republican government is unlikely to move to break up Facebook (Instagram, WhatsApp) and if I place my tin foil hat on just for a brief moment, perhaps Zuckerberg knows it’s in his/their best interest for Trump to be re-elected…. *takes tin foil hat off again*

Hi Nick

Thanks for sharing your paper. It was great to read.

My question is for you is:
If what you’re presenting is correct, what consequences should come of Facebook’s manipulation?

Thanks James, great question!

I think slapping big tech with fines isn’t effective. Google and Facebook have been hit with fines in the last few years for various reasons and it’s nearly funny how little impact it makes on their business.

Google was fined $170 million USD[^1] by the FTC last year for violating the COPPA Rule. To put that in perspective, in Q1 of this year they generated nearly $41b in revenue, which per day equates to about $455m each day.

When Zuckerberg said “What’s good for the world, isn’t necessarily good for Facebook” [^2], it doesn’t seem so much of a stretch to think these executives are aware that benefits of their unethical business strategy will heavily outweigh the potential repercussions.

With that said, I’m still not sure how punishments where necessary could be more effective. Putting executives in jail rarely happens, so perhaps legislation in the US should be implemented to hold executives accountable after an infraction, instead of a slap on the wrist and have them ride off into the sunset to continue what they were doing.



Hi Nicholas
I am interested in your paper as I am also investigating on Facebook, your article shows a different aspect on Facebook.

Someone argues that Facebook should be free to use and shouldn’t have any commercial activities. But think about it, the company needs money to maintain the services of Facebook. Although it is free to use. The company still need to hire people to maintain the website. The most common way to make money is by advertisements.

In my opinion, I think that people should keep in mind that there is no such free lunch in the world. If we choose to use the service of Facebook free of charge, we should expect that there are a lot of commercial ads and post while using it. However, this is just my own opinion:).



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