Updated 30 June 2014

Facebook toys with your emotions

Facebook manipulated news feeds to study and control almost 700,000 users’ emotions.


It already knows your name, your work and school history, and your relationship status. What more could Facebook want? Well, Facebook, the world’s largest social media site, is now treating you, its user, as a lab rat.

Facebook routinely adjusts its users’ news feeds not only to test out a number of design updates, but to also create a more appealing and useful experience for users.

Read: Using Facebook elevates mood

However, from Jan. 11-18, 2012 Facebook took it a few steps further. Facebook randomly selected 689,003 users to unknowingly participate in a psychological study to determine whether the site could alter the emotional state of its users. To do this, a group of researchers from Cornell University, Facebook and the University of California, San Francisco altered Facebook’s algorithm to be able to filter what shows up on subjects’ news feeds, such as status updates, videos, pictures, links and the flow of comments.

Read: Teens addicted to Facebook

One group was shown fewer posts containing words thought to evoke positive emotions, such as “happy” and “sweet,” while another group was shown fewer posts containing negative words, such as “mad” and “hate.” To do this, Facebook relied on a computerized system that identified positive and negative words based on an electronic dictionary.

The result?

According to the study, titled “Experimental Evidence Of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks,” which was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions.”

Read: Does Facebook threaten your marriage?

In short, the researchers studied a phenomenon called “emotional contagion,” which occurs when people transfer their positive or negative emotions on to others, and proved that the phenomenon occurs not only in-person, but online as well.

While the study sparked outrage in some Facebook users who argued that the company had crossed ethical boundaries by performing this study without informing them, Facebook has been running experiments such as these for a long time.

Read: Facebook posts not easily forgotten

Facebook’s data science team is tasked with analyzing information provided by Facebook users into usable scientific data. Since companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Google rely heavily on data-driven advertising to make a profit, they tend to collect and store a large amount of personal information.

For example, in February, The Wall Street Journal published an article on the best places to be single in the U.S. based on data collected by the company’s data science team.

Read: Paedophiles meet on Facebook

What’s interesting is that Facebook researchers are able to conduct studies such as these because every user has consented with Facebook’s data use policy and terms of service when they initially created their accounts, arguably constituting informed consent. 

Read more: 

Facebook habits affect happiness
Facebook can be psychologically meaningful
Facebook saved me from my husband

Sources: LA Times, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America and Huffington Post




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