Facebook admits manipulating 689,003 users' emotions in psychology experiment

The study's results suggests that "emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people"

Published June 29, 2014 7:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Stephen Lam)
(Reuters/Stephen Lam)

A new research paper has revealed two startling pieces of information. First, it disclosed that Facebook manipulated the News Feeds of nearly 700,000 English-speaking users in a research study on emotional states. Second, the study (found in PNAS) suggests that emotional contagion can happen without "direct interaction between people."

The study is based on the idea that "emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness," according to the abstract. (The abstract also states that the results of studies on this phenomena are controversial.)

In the experiment, researchers wanted to test whether emotional contagion was possible outside of in-person interaction. They did so by manipulating the emotional content of users' News Feeds on Facebook. "When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred," reads the abstract. Basically the study found that the transference of emotions documented in other real-world experiments, was also true of not face-to-face interaction.

Results aside, the study itself is rather creepy. Though the study did not breach the Facebook user terms and conditions, it was deemed questionable by the editor of the study, according to the Atlantic. From the Atlantic:

"Even Susan Fiske, the professor of psychology at Princeton University who edited the study for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of America, had doubts when the research first crossed her desk.

"'I was concerned,' she told me in a phone interview, 'until I queried the authors and they said their local institutional review board had approved it—and apparently on the grounds that Facebook apparently manipulates people's News Feeds all the time... I understand why people have concerns. I think their beef is with Facebook, really, not the research.'


According to the Atlantic, most Institutional Review Boards rely on the Common Rule, which states that consent must be given by subjects before they can be used for research. "People are supposed to be, under most circumstances, told that they're going to be participants in research and then agree to it and have the option not to agree to it without penalty," Fiske told the Atlantic. The Common Rule is a standard for federally funded research, but is not required for private companies, like Facebook, to follow. (However, according to the Atlantic, they often do to avoid backlash.)

And the backlash has arrived for Facebook. Users are not pleased that their emotions are being manipulated by the forces at a giant social media site -- especially without expressly consenting to it.

Facebook gave the Atlantic this comment:

"We carefully consider what research we do and have a strong internal review process. There is no unnecessary collection of people’s data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.”

h/t PNAS, the Atlantic

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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Emotions Facebook Mark Zuckerberg Newsfeed Psychology Social Media Technology