Facebook experiment shows feasibility of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks

Pierluigi Paganini June 30, 2014

A Facebook experiment conducted with the Cornell and the University of California provides evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.

Facebook is the subject of a heated debate for a psychological experiment the company has conducted on nearly 700,000 people without their knowledge. The Facebook experiment was carried out in 2012 and was related to the manipulation of content on users’ newsfeeds to analyze the effect on the user’s sentiment.

The Facebook experiment ran from January 11 to 18, 2012 during which the hundreds of thousands of Facebook users unknowingly participating may have felt either happier or more depressed than usual because they visualized the post of their friend.

The study was conducted in conjunction with researchers from the Cornell and the University of California, Facebook filtered users’ news feeds composed by comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their social network in order to provide evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.

“Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments, with people transferring positive and negative emotions to others.” “Three studies have laid the groundwork for testing these processes via Facebook, the largest online social network. This research demonstrated that (i) emotional contagion occurs via text-based computer-mediated communication; (ii) contagion of psychological and physiological qualities has been suggested based on correlational data for social networks generally; and (iii) people’s emotional expressions on Facebook predict friends’ emotional expressions, even days later (although some shared experiences may in fact last several days). To date, however, there is no experimental evidence that emotions or moods are contagious in the absence of direct interaction between experiencer and target.” states the abstract of the project.

The Facebook experiment shows that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, with this approach it is possible to induce same emotions without individual’s awareness.

One of the tests conducted reduced users’ exposure to their friends’ “positive emotional content”, resulting in fewer positive posts from the observed users. Another test reduced users’ exposure to “negative emotional content” and fewer negative posts was the result.

““When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred,” ““The fact that people were more emotionally positive in response to positive emotion updates from their friends stands in contrast to theories that suggest viewing positive posts by friends on Facebook may somehow affect us negatively,” according to the paper” states the paper.

Facebook experiment

Is the Facebook experiment ethically correct?

Giving a look to the Facebook’s data use policy it is possible to note that the company informs its users that their ’ information will be used “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement,”, in other words every user could be involved in a study like this one. 

“This research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account,” “We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible. A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it’s positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow. We carefully consider what research we do and have a strong internal review process. There is no unnecessary collection of people’s data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.” said a Facebook spokesperson.

The lessons learnt are:

  • Social media are a powerful instrument that could be used for PSYOPs operations. The Facebook experiment confirms its efficacy.
  • Read carefully the data use policy before accept the TOS of any web service.
  • Our data are a precious commodity for private companies that could use them for both commercial and research purposes.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Facebook experiment,  PSYOPs)

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