Facebook Defends ‘Emotional Contagion’ Study

Over the weekend we examined the recent “mood experiment” conducted by Facebook in which users’ news feed were altered to show either positive or negative comments only. This was to investigate “emotional contagion” and to see if social media could influence our own emotional thoughts.

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Photo: Sukharevskyy Dmytro

The controversial and largely unethical study was published in the PNAS journal and since its publication and the subsequent outcry online, Facebook’s data scientist and one of the co-authors of the study, Adam Kramer has attempted to calm the fires a little.

“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” said Kramer, adding that he and his colleagues wanted to investigate whether friends posting “positive content” can lead to a user feeling down 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.”

Facebook’s study has been called unethical by many commentators because while the social network that users technically agreed to it through the User Agreement (you know, that thing that no one ever reads), in this case they weren’t made aware that their emotions were being ‘manipulated’ for the sake of a study. Facebook says that 0.04 percent users were used during this study in 2012 but that is still nearly 700,000 people

“Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone,” explained Kramer. Facebook says it will now be making changes to its internal study policy.

“I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”

This appears to have done little stem the controversy. The Guardian is currently running a poll asking readers how it feels about the social network in the wake of this experiment. In the poll, as of this writing, around 63 percent said they were not surprised when they found out about the study but a staggering 81 percent said they’ve lost trust in Facebook.

But don’t think that this will mean a mass exodus of users from the social network site either. Asked if they would close their accounts, 59 percent said yes while 41 said no.

Serial investor Marc Andreessen has defended Facebook over its study saying that it’s just like any site. “Run a web site, measure anything, make any changes based on measurements? Congratulations, you’re running a psychology experiment!” he tweeted.

“The experiment in question was run in early 2012, and we have come a long way since then,” concluded Kramer. “Those review practices will also incorporate what we’ve learned from the reaction to this paper.”