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Facebook toys with the emotions of users in the name of science

updated 02:30 pm EDT, Sun June 29, 2014

Psychological study in 2012 altered users' news feeds for positive or negative mental states

In a study to see if emotional states could be transferred to others online, Facebook conducted a psychological experiment in January 2012 with its users as guinea pigs. According a research paper published this month, feeds from over 689,000 English-language accounts were altered for either positive or negative states for one week to see if there was an impact on mental states.

In the study, which was led by Facebook data "scientist" Adam Kramer, algorithms were used to remove postings from a user's news feed for either a positive or negative influence based on keywords that were filtered out. By using a machine to filter the words, the researchers could avoid reading any posts or other information that could fall under protection from privacy settings.

Both negative and positive experiments were carried out in parallel, with a 10 to 90 percent chance of information being filtered out for a username selected. The study said that while the news feed was altered, all of the information it filtered out could be accessed on the friend's feed or timeline. Content of direct messages was not affected.

Words were selected for filtering by Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software. Control samples were done with random omissions without consideration for emotional context, as well as others to balance the disparity between the 22.4 percent of posts with negative words and 46.8 percent with positive words. The paper states that over three million posts were analyzed in the experiment.

Facebook stands behind the ability to manipulate users feeds based on a single line in its terms of service that every user must agree to. In the paper, the researchers point to the line in Facebook's Data Use Policy. According to Facebook's page on information privacy, data can be used "for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.

"As such, it was consistent with Facebook's Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research," states the paper.

This raises concern for privacy issues, especially when the results of the study are considered. Those using Facebook have consented to data manipulation based on the idea that the social media company could be using the data to improve its services or research projects. Since the data of the study, using a large data sample, proves that social media can manipulate one aspect of a person by controlling information, it can be said that the flow of information has a profound effect on emotional states or thought patterns.

While data can be changed to alter emotions, it's important to see that there is a larger impact at hand; what is said on the Internet does affect others. The study found that emotional contagion could occur without the need to have a face-to-face interaction or witness nonverbal cues. In fact, the context of text alone is sufficient enough to invoke the emotional shift.

A withdrawal effect was also noticed during the course of the study, meaning that those seeing fewer emotional posts showed less expressiveness in the days after. Results indicate that the people seeing more positive items in their news feeds posted more positive words, while those seeing more negative items posted more negative words in turn.

"These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks," states the paper. "This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others' positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people."

The paper on the study can be found at the Proceedings of the Natation Academy of Sciences website.

by MacNN Staff



  1. Alann

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 11-27-10

    "In the Name of $cience."

  1. nowwhatareyoulookingat

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 07-13-09

    And only 43 people killed themselves due to extreme depression caused by this study.

  1. nowwhatareyoulookingat

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 07-13-09

    Another 17 people went on murderous rampages because "Facebook is watching me."

  1. Charles Martin

    MacNN Editor

    Joined: 08-04-01

    There needs to be a Congressional investigation of this. "And you think this is okay??" needs to be asked.

  1. Charles Martin

    MacNN Editor

    Joined: 08-04-01

    In fact, on thinking about it, a class-action lawsuit should be filed. I don't think many judges would interpret the user's agreement to cover what they did. This is the sort of behaviour I would expect of Nazi scientists, seriously.

  1. mark_b

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-04-13

    Did I sign up for this??? Need to check that user agreement ...

  1. nouser

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-29-12

    Don't you just love mind control games? That's why we all signed up for Facebook, so that they could screw with our heads, right? Bye-bye Facebook! Been fun, but I tire of this game. Play your mind control games with those less intolerant than myself. Shades of the 1984 Apple commercial:

  1. Grendelmon

    Senior User

    Joined: 12-26-07

    You get what you pay for, folks.

  1. Raman

    Mac Elite

    Joined: 03-15-01

    Because people's actual emotions are plastered over their FB feed. Real scientific.

  1. shawnde

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-01-08


    Facebook execs ARE Nazi scientists .... just disguised as jews, who supposedly hate Nazis. Also true of the team who invented the atom bomb .... all jewish people.

  1. koolkid1976

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 05-08-03


    Your Natzis scientist comments reminds me of this show on the science channel called "Dark Matters: Twisted But True." This is exactly the type of stuff you would expect to see on that show.

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