Facebook can be an emotional minefield to begin with (see: FOMO, baby photos, ex's relationship status updates), but news that Facebook has manipulated users' news feeds as part of a "massive" psychological experiment came as an unwelcome surprise to many.
Facebook revealed that data scientists manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users for one week in July 2012, in order to study how "emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion." In other words: how your emotional state is affected by what you see on Facebook.
We are, indeed, affected by what pops up in our news feeds, according to the results of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers manipulated the content of users' news feed by controlling the number of positive and negative posts. Some of the unwitting Facebook guinea pigs, for instance, may have seen an unusually high volume of sad, depressing posts from their friends. Others were fed happier news feed content, including more positive words.
After the week-long tinkering phase, researchers found that the users who were exposed to negative content were more likely, themselves, to post negative content. Similarly, those exposed to positive messages were more inclined to write positive news feed updates. The conclusion, according to the study: "The results show emotional contagion."
Backlash against the experiment has been widespread. Even Susan Fiske, the editor of the study, thinks Facebook may have gone overboard. "I'm still thinking about it and I'm a little creeped out, too," said Fiske, Princeton University professor in an interview with The Atlantic.
Concerns over the larger significance of the study have also been raised. Here's what Kate Crawford, who researches how people engage with networked technologies, wrote on Twitter:
Facebook has taken note. Adam D. I. Kramer, the Facebook researcher who lead the study, posted a public apology to his Facebook page, acknowledging the growing ethical concerns surrounding the study.
"I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety."
Alexandra DiPalma is a producer for Fusion Lightworks, Fusion’s In-house Branded Content Agency.