Sometimes social media can feel like a giant social experiment. As we learned this week, sometimes it actually is.
It was recently revealed that for a week in early 2012, Facebook tweaked the content almost 690,000 users saw on their Timelines. Some were shown more positive posts, while others were shown more negative posts. This was done as an experiment by researchers from Cornell, the University of California, San Francisco, and Facebook.
The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Through the study it was found that users who saw more negative content were slightly more likely to produce negative content themselves. Those who saw more positive posts responded with positive posts of their own. The study also proved that Facebook has the ability to mess with our mental states, which is a little spooky.
When you look at this as an experiment, you would likely agree that the results are fairly conclusive and show the mood of others has some level of impact on your own mood. When you look at this as the manipulation of the moods of thousands of people, you may think it’s a little (or a lot) shady.
Though the company’s terms of service allow Facebook to conduct this type of research, users on the whole have reacted with anger and questions on the experiment’s ethicality.
Some have taken their frustration to an extreme, accusing Facebook of harming users who may have already been depressed or have anxiety problems by showing them more negative posts than usual.
Adam D. I. Kramer, the Facebook researcher who designed the experiment, wrote in a post on Sunday that the research was intended to help improve how Facebook determines which posts to show users, not upset them.
“I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” he wrote. “In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”
Given what we know about the impacts of mood on health, it certainly seems dubious to purposely manipulate people’s moods (without their explicit consent) simply for the sake of research.
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