Facebook ‘emotional contagion’ study burns users

Researchers manipulated the number of positive and negative statuses that nearly 700,000 people say in their Facebook news feeds. It’s legal, but is it right?

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​ Some Facebook users are pretty upset to find out that researchers may have manipulated what they saw in their news feeds for the sake of a study.

A team of researchers, led by Jeff Hancock, a professor at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of its Social Media Lab, counted the number of positive and negative words in the updates of the nearly 700,000 Facebook members sampled in a January 2012 study. The team also changed what some people saw in their feeds to test their emotional responses. The study’s title refers to the phenomenon as “emotional contagion.”

The researchers found that, of the 122 million words in the posts, positive words outnumbered the negative ones at an almost two to one ratio (4 million positive to 1.8 million negative).

Not surprisingly, those Facebook users who saw more positive status messages in their News Feeds were more likely to post positive status updates of their own; the converse was also true.

Though the researchers followed Facebook’s data use policy, the study lacked what’s referred to in academia as “informed consent” among the participants. No one was informed, nor did anyone consent to be test subjects.

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