Lab ratted: Facebook experimented with our emotions without telling us

Lab rat
Seriously? I just wanted to look at my friend’s vacation photos, and now you’re trying to depress me? Source: Harraz

I’d like to know if I was the subject of a psychology experiment; wouldn’t you? Especially one that intended to influence my emotional state. Heck, I might even want to avoid such an experiment unless I volunteered for it.

Apparently, I did potentially volunteer for a Facebook psychology experiment when I signed up for the service. News to me! Yes, the details of that user agreement’s data use policy somehow make it OK for the company to tweak my news feed in ways intended to manipulate my emotions.

The experiment on 689,003 people took place Jan. 11 through Jan. 18 in 2012, according to the description of the research on Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists randomly selected that population of a small city, which still only comes to .05383% of Facebook’s professed 1.28 billion active users.

Experiment results, for you curious mad scientists: What you read online affects how you’re feeling, if the measurements Facebook used actually reflect people’s emotional states (and many other “ifs” around the experiment’s structure). Negative words make you more negative. And positivity generates positivity. Yep. I suppose we all would guess this, but we don’t truly know it in a scientific way. Until Facebook! And its willingness to mess with your head!

Am I small, four-legged, furry and doomed?

I’d like — and I’m sure you’d like — to know: Was I a Facebook lab rat? Did the mother of all social networks actually toy with my emotions for a science experiment without telling me?

These folks might have the info, and will likely be hearing from a few people soon:

Trust Facebook? Haha.

This experiment may have little tangible effect on the participants, but perceptually, this is a significant misstep. And how about some decency: You shouldn’t experiment on people without letting them know, regardless of the technical details of your user agreement. I really can’t believe the company did this as it struggles again and again with building and maintaining users’ trust. Oh, wait. And oops. Oh, jeez.

Intent matters

What is an experiment? How do we legally define that? How do we define it in an informal, social way?

Perhaps this is just usage of our data, and perhaps we signed that away, but doesn’t directly influencing what we see in our news feed in a specific way (make sadder! make happier!) with the intent to see what specific results it generates constitute some stepping-over-the-line moment?

We are being toyed with.

But I can see how, well, Facebook already toys with us — but at least it’s seemingly with the intent to flood us with more relevant ads or get us playing on the site more.

To toy with us with the intent of manipulating and measuring our emotions for scientific research … that feels much different.


The company made $642 million in profit the first quarter of 2014. Who would’ve thought advancing science could pay so well.

Next time

Perhaps add a separate agreement thingy box to checkmark indicating we’re OK with being part of an experiment that may influence our mental state.

Research highlights

“In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.”

“The experiment manipulated the extent to which people (N = 689,003) were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed. This tested whether exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviors, in particular whether exposure to emotional content led people to post content that was consistent with the exposure—thereby testing whether exposure to verbal affective expressions leads to similar verbal expressions, a form of emotional contagion. People who viewed Facebook in English were qualified for selection into the experiment. Two parallel experiments were conducted for positive and negative emotion: One in which exposure to friends’ positive emotional content in their News Feed was reduced, and one in which exposure to negative emotional content in their News Feed was reduced.”

“It is important to note that this content was always available by viewing a friend’s content directly by going to that friend’s “wall” or “timeline,” rather than via the News Feed. Further, the omitted content may have appeared on prior or subsequent views of the News Feed. Finally, the experiment did not affect any direct messages sent from one user to another.”

“LIWC was adapted to run on the Hadoop Map/Reduce system (11) and in the News Feed filtering system, such that no text was seen by the researchers. As such, it was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.”

“The experiments took place for 1 wk (January 11–18, 2012). Participants were randomly selected based on their User ID, resulting in a total of ∼155,000 participants per condition who posted at least one status update during the experimental period.”

  2. New Scientist: Even online, emotions can be contagious
  3. A.V. Club: Facebook tinkered with users’ feeds for a massive psychology experiment
  4. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks

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