Facebook is more than just a social network; it is also officially an online science laboratory. The company has revealed in a research paper that it carried out a weeklong experiment that affected nearly 700,000 users to test the effects of transferring emotion online.
The news feeds belonging to 689,003 users of the English language version were altered to see “whether exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviors,” Facebook says. There was one track for those receiving more positive posts and another for those who were exposed to more emotionally negative content from their friends. Posts themselves were not affected and could still be viewed from friends’ profiles, but the trial instead edited what the guinea pig users saw in their news feed, which itself is governed by a selective algorithm, as brands frustrated by the system can attest to.
Facebook found that the emotion in posts is contagious. Those who saw positive content were, on average, more positive and less negative with their Facebook activity in the days that followed. The reverse was true for those who were tested with more negative postings in their news feed.
It’s fairly established that this is true for real life — for example, seeing a friend upset can upset you personally — but Facebook found that “textual content alone appears to be a sufficient channel” to also have this effect.
The company believes that this study is one of the first of its kind to show these kinds of results, and certainly one of the largest-scale to date, but users may well be upset to hear about it. The company points out that it didn’t breach its terms – users give permission for experiments, among other things, when they sign up — but testing theories on people without any warning could be seen as an abuse of the social network’s popularity and position.
Even the editor of the report found the ethics behind it to be problematic, as The Atlantic points out.