Facebook May Have Used You For A Social Experiment

The company altered the feeds of nearly 700,000 users for a week in 2012 without telling anyone.

Take a minute to travel back to January 2012 on your Facebook page. Notice anything odd? Were you particularly down, or particularly elated?

If so, you may have been one of the 700,000 users who Facebook unknowingly used in a social experiment to test how social media affects our emotions.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Facebook and Cornell University altered the Facebook feeds of 689,003 people to display either predominately positive or predominately negative posts for a week. The goal was to see how that effects the tone of their own updates.

But Facebook users aren’t all that happy about this news — not only that the social media giant was toying with their emotions, but that they did so without telling them. But researchers are maintaining that Facebook users indirectly agreed to the study by agreeing to the Facebook’s Data Use Policy, which reads in part, “we may use the information we receive about you…for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

In an explanation this weekend (posted, appropriately, on Facebook), Adam Kramer, one of the three authors of the study, apologized, saying that while their research may have been technically legal, it was far from tasteful.

“We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook,” he wrote, and later pointed out that they found that the opposite was true — that people responded positively to a more positive-leaning news feed.

“Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone. I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”