prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Facebook’s Social Experiment

Posted by prof e on July 6, 2014

BigBroYou may have heard by now that Facebook cooperated with researchers from two universities to study emotional contagion. The question that they wanted to answer was, does the emotional tone of others’ posts on your Facebook wall affect the tone of your posts? To find the answer they conducted an experiment…on nearly 700,000 Facebook users. The methodology was fairly straightforward; they began by using software to analyze posts in order to categorize them as either negative or positive. Then, they manipulated which posts were more likely to show up on the wall of certain Facebook users. By analyzing those users’ posts they were able to determine if they became more positive or negative as a result. Sounds like an interesting experiment for those of us interested in social science and the effect that mediated interactions may have on our personal disposition or behavior.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. [snip] 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.

Unfortunately for Facebook, this little experiment (conducted in 2012 and published last month) will likely become a PR case study of what NOT to do to your social media subscribers. The issue here is one of “informed consent.” In a nutshell that means that human participants in any study must be given sufficient information about the potential risk/harm/benefits of a study before being asked to give their consent to participate. Only after giving consent are human participants subjected to the experimental procedures. In this case the researchers said that Facebook users had already given consent for their data to be used by Facebook in a variety of ways–including research. Facebook’s TOS (Terms of Service) do make reference to using users’ data for research purposes, but according to some sources that clause was added AFTER the experiment was conducted.

While all the negative attention is certainly a problem for Facebook, it is noteworthy that this little scandal has drawn attention to a much larger issue with much more sinister implications. Social media users need to be aware that their data are being used for a variety of purposes…the most obvious being marketing, advertising, and research. Personal privacy is but a mirage and signing up for any of these services constitutes selling oneself on the open market. I hate to be too pessimistic, but short of complete disconnection any hope of control of one’s digital destiny is mere wishful thinking.

You can read the study at



3 Responses to “Facebook’s Social Experiment”

  1. Samantha Cush said

    This topic was so interesting to me because just being a face book user i noticed that on some days the posts on my news feed all share the same emotions. Especially when it comes to women there always sad or looking for a companion. As said on the PRSA website when defining public relation “The earliest definitions emphasized press agentry and publicity,”. I’ve noticed that many of these women who put up these emotional posts get a lot of attention from them, so they are able to use face book as a way of getting some form of publicity. What i found most interesting about the blog was how it went from a little experiment to something that could turn into a PR case study. Its sort of how in the “Confessions of a Media Manipulator” slide show the one amateur video was turned into a news story that ended up being registered nationally.

  2. Zak Messink said

    This article was definitely interesting to me. It’s amazing how social media shifts emotions as easily as it does. The PRSA website’s definition made me understand this article, as defining how public relations works as a management a management function,”Anticipating, analyzing and interpreting public opinion, attitudes and issues that might impact, for good or ill, the operations and plans of the organization.” The results of this experiment concluded their question on the matter. The results of this make me look at how people always do talk about certain subjects to maybe; interpret their public opinion on via Facebook, twitter, and perhaps any social media site. The results don’t really surprise me though, because loads of people rely on all these sites to get their opinion out about whatever topic is trending, happy or sad.

  3. Rose Meyerhofer said

    Although the methods used to obtain the data were legally pretty sketchy, the results of the experiment were really interesting, and not unlike the methods used by journalists in search of stories; as stated in the Confessions of a Media Manipulator presentation, up to 89 percent of journalists wrote that they used social networks and blogs to research articles.

    However, going by the PRSA’s definition of public relations, “strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics,” Facebook may have hurt their public relations in this way. Their use of users’ data without legal consent at the time of the experiment may lead many users to believe that instead of having a “mutually beneficial relationship” with Facebook, they are simply being mined for data with or without their agreement and the little control that privacy policies can offer.

    Even though users ultimately make a conscious decision to click “Submit” when they write and post status updates or blog posts, I think the audience makes an important difference in what one chooses to display, and that helps draw a line between the ethics of the journalists from the Cision study and the researchers in this article. Blogs are often intended for a wide, diverse audience, but Facebook posts are limited almost exclusively to people that the users know. Facebook statuses definitely have a personal element, and when they are lifted without the knowledge or consent of the audience members, it can seem more like a personal violation than content specifically created for unknown viewers.

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