By William Hughes
Jun 27, 2014 3:30 PM
Scientists at Facebook have published a paper showing that they manipulated the content seen by more than 600,000 users in an attempt to determine whether this would affect their emotional state. The paper, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” was published in The Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences. It shows how Facebook data scientists tweaked the algorithm that determines which posts appear on users’ news feeds—specifically, researchers skewed the number of positive or negative terms seen by randomly selected users. Facebook then analyzed the future postings of those users over the course of a week to see if people responded with increased positivity or negativity of their own, thus answering the question of whether emotional states can be transmitted across a social network. Result: They can! Which is great news for Facebook data scientists hoping to prove a point about modern psychology. It’s less great for the people having their emotions secretly manipulated.
In order to sign up for Facebook, users must click a box saying they agree to the Facebook Data Use Policy, giving the company the right to access and use the information posted on the site. The policy lists a variety of potential uses for your data, most of them related to advertising, but there’s also a bit about “internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” In the study, the authors point out that they stayed within the data policy’s liberal constraints by using machine analysis to pick out positive and negative posts, meaning no user data containing personal information was actually viewed by human researchers. And there was no need to ask study “participants” for consent, as they’d already given it by agreeing to Facebook’s terms of service in the first place.
Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer is listed as the study’s lead author. In an interview the company released a few years ago, Kramer is quoted as saying he joined Facebook because “Facebook data constitutes the largest field study in the history of the world.” It’s a charming reminder that Facebook isn’t just the place you go to see pictures of your friends’ kids or your racist uncle’s latest rant against the government—it’s also an exciting research lab, with all of us as potential test subjects.
How I determined what links I was going to add was just by deciding what could lead to a new article. I added some to give and interview with Adam Kramer, a couple other articles that discuss the outcomes of the study, and a few more to show the Facebook Data Use Policy and where to find all the information they discuss in the article. Reading all the new links definitely helped me understand the article better. I went onto Kramer’s actual Facebook page and he made a status discussing the lash back Facebook was getting from the study. It was cool to read and hear his point of view.
The more I read, the more I wanted to edit the article to explain certain parts more and discuss another side of it. This article was short, and pretty vague, but it discussed the important parts of the information the readers needed to get out of it. Just reading it and researching I wish it was a tad more in depth. Their discussion of the study was a little to broad and I wasn’t very clear on what the study was actually on until I found the real study and read more into it. Making it clearer would’ve been better, but since we added hyperlinks, I just added a link to the original study so that other readers can find it easily and make up their own opinions. By not clicking on the links I have added, the reader could be missing out on full explanations and seeing why the decided to do this study. I liked that they did this study because it showed us that emotions are pretty much contagious, even over social media.