Facebook manipulated users' moods in secret experiment

Facebook can use algorithm to make users happy or sad and even scientist that edited the study said she was 'creeped out' by it

Facebook manipulated the emotions of hundreds of thousands of its users, and found that they would pass on happy or sad emotions, it has said. The experiment, for which researchers did not gain specific consent, has provoked criticism from users with privacy and ethical concerns.

For one week in 2012, Facebook skewed nearly 700,000 users’ news feeds to either be happier or sadder than normal. The experiment found that after the experiment was over users tended to post positive or negative comments according to the skew that was given to their news feed.

Read more: Facebook responds to users' outrage

The research has provoked distress because of the manipulation involved.

Studies of real world networks show that what the researchers call ‘emotional contagion’ can be transferred through networks. But researchers say that the study is the first evidence that the effect can happen without direct interaction or nonverbal clues.

Anyone who used the English version of Facebook automatically qualified for the experiment, the results of which were published earlier this month.  Researchers analysed the words used in posts to automatically decide whether they were likely to be positive or negative, and shifted them up or down according to which group users fell into.

It found that emotions spread across the network, and that friends tended to respond more to negative posts. Users who were exposed to more emotional posts of either type tended to withdraw from posting themselves.

There are on average 1,500 possible stories that could show up on users’ news feeds. Source: Getty Images

The research drew criticism from campaigners over the weekend, who said that the research could be used by Facebook to encourage users to post more and by other agencies such as governments to manipulate the feelings of users in certain countries.

Even the scientist that edited the study had ethical concerns about its methods, she said. "I think it's an open question," Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University, told the Atlantic. "It's ethically okay from the regulations perspective, but ethics are kind of social decisions. There's not an absolute answer. And so the level of outrage that appears to be happening suggests that maybe it shouldn't have been done... I'm still thinking about it and I'm a little creeped out too."

Facebook’s ‘Data Use Policy’ — part of the Terms Of Service that every user signs up to when creating an account — reserves the right for Facebook to use information “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

The researchers said that constituted the informed consent required to conduct the research and made it legal. The study does not say that users were told of their participation in the experiment, which researchers said was conducted by computers so that they saw no posts.

Facebook has said that there are on average 1,500 possible stories that could show up on users’ news feeds at any one time. It uses an algorithm that it says analyses users’ behaviour on the site to determine which of those stories to show.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

    Ashdown Group: SQL DBA - Croydon - up to £65,000

    £58000 - £65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL DBA - Bromley, South East London...

    Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager - Retail / FMCG / WMS Operations

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager ...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is require...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor