The much fabled Facebook News Feed algorithm sees to it that we are shown stories that Facebook thinks we will engage with, or that will be of significant interest to us. To add to the irritation of users, we are also shown Suggested Posts and adverts that take the place of posts from people who we’re actually friends with.
However, it’s one thing being second guessed for the sake of not being overwhelmed with potentially irrelevant or humdrum content, but it’s something else entirely to have the content of your News Feed manipulated to see if it can elicit certain emotional reactions from you. And that’s exactly what has been going on at Facebook.
It has recently come to light that Facebook had manipulated the emotions of hundreds of thousands of users by what was shown in their respective News Feeds. An experiment conducted in 2012 saw nearly 700,000 users’ News Feeds skewed to be happier or sadder than normal, in an attempt to see if an ’emotional contagion’ could be affected.
The results showed that emotion can indeed spread across the network, evidenced by the fact that users who had been presented with a manipulated Facebook News Feed went on to post updates of their own that reflected the mood of the ones they had been shown.
Users were understandably annoyed to find out that Facebook had been using them as psychological guinea-pigs without their knowledge or consent. While not necessarily illegal, what Facebook has done could be considered immoral, and even those involved in conducting the research – such as Susan Fiske, Professor of Psychology at Princeton University – had their reservations:
“…the level of outrage that appears to be happening suggests that maybe it shouldn’t have been done… I’m still thinking about it and I’m a little creeped out too.”
However, Adam Kramer – a member of Facebook’s Core Data Science Team and co-author of the study – has defended the experiment:
“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product… We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn’t clearly state our motivations in the paper.”
How do you feel about Facebook’s experiment? While there is the obvious ethical issue surrounding the manipulation of people’s moods, there is a case to argue that Facebook had the interests of its wider audience at heart, and telling people that they were to be the subject of such an experiment could bias the outcome. If you have a view on this story, please feel free to let us know your opinion by leaving a comment below.