Facebook Researchers Manipulate News Feed to Observe ‘Emotional Contagion’

Back in 2012, Facebook researchers manipulated the News Feed items of more than 689,000 users. For a single week, the team split these users into two separate groups – one that received mostly positive News Feed items, and a second that received mostly negative News Feed items. What the researchers found was a modest “emotional contagion,” where an individual’s feelings were manipulated through their online experience.

The study, entitled Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks, was published in the journal PNAS. The research was performed by social scientists based at Cornell University and the University of California, who conducted their investigations to see if “… emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.”

Although emotional contagion has been demonstrated in laboratory settings, the phenomenon is not as well understood when looking at social networking sites. Some research suggests real-world social networks can have a long-term impact on users’ moods, with emotional states readily transferred from one user, or group of users, to another.

Users exposed to fewer of their friends’ positive emotional expressions in their News Feed were more likely to upload posts that were negative. In contrast, those subjects that received fewer negative News Feed items were more likely to upload posts of an upbeat nature.

In concluding, the group claims their research is evidence for a massive-scale contagion that could be propagated through social networks. They also argue that non-verbal cues and face-to-face interaction is not necessary to influence someone’s emotions and trigger an emotional contagion.

The Facebook users were unwittingly involved in the study, since the researcher team did not seek permission before conducting the experiment. However, people who sign up to the social networking site must agree to its terms and conditions before gaining access; in doing so, users accept that their information may be used for “… data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” As expected, the team behind the study say they were operating within Facebook’s data guidelines.

Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Cornell University, recently discussed his team’s plans for the future. Hancock says he is gearing up to examine how positive and negative emotions shape a person’s engagement in online activities; this includes “liking” and commenting habits.