Anger Follows Facebook's Secret Study to Manipulate Emotions

New details surrounding how Facebook allowed academic researchers to conduct a secret experiment on nearly 700,000 of its users to determine if digital manipulation of their emotions could be achieved has spurred widespread condemnation and new fears about the power of such systems when turned against the millions of people who use them on a daily basis.

The experiment in question, which sought to document evidence of a “massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” was authorized by Facebook in 2012 and conducted with outside assistance by researchers at Cornell and the University of California.

As the Wall Street Journal describes it, the purpose of the live experiment was to “determine whether it could alter the emotional state of [Facebook] users and prompt them to post either more positive or negative content.” To achieve this, the site secretly and without the knowledge of those being subjected to the research “enabled an algorithm, for one week, to automatically omit content that contained words associated with either positive or negative emotions from the central news feeds of 689,003 users.”

According to the abstract of the study:

Though the research was first published in an academic journal earlier this year, new attention was brought to it over the weekend after the New Scientist reviewed its findings and reported that the real-life emotions of people, “like [computer] viruses, can spread through online social networks.”

And blogger Sophie Weiner, writing for AnimalNewYork, responded: “What many of us feared is already a reality: Facebook is using us as lab rats, and not just to figure out which ads we’ll respond to but to actually change our emotions.”


Numerous outlets then picked up the story, with the Guardian reporting that the lawyers, internet activists and politicians it spoke with used words like “scandalous”, “spooky” and “disturbing” to describe the mass experiment in emotional manipulation.

According to the New York Times:

As the Guardian reported, online “commentators voiced fears that the process could be used for political purposes in the runup to elections or to encourage people to stay on the site by feeding them happy thoughts and so boosting advertising revenues.”

The newspaper quoted Clay Johnson, the co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008, who said: “The Facebook ‘transmission of anger’ experiment is terrifying.”

As Johnson wrote on Twitter: “Could the CIA incite revolution in Sudan by pressuring Facebook to promote discontent? Should that be legal? Could Mark Zuckerberg swing an election by promoting Upworthy [a website aggregating viral content] posts two weeks beforehand? Should that be legal?”

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