Did Facebook Emotionally Manipulate Users?

Distressed woman stares at her laptopSome Facebook users have always been concerned about privacy and digital manipulation, and their fears may have come true. Facebook recently admitted to manipulating the emotions of nearly 700,000 users.

Studying Users’ Emotions

GoodTherapy.org recently reported on the published study. To study the effects of “emotional contagion” on social networking sites, Facebook removed some status updates to users’ news feeds, and added other status updates. All of the statuses were real statuses, but the result of the manipulation was that some users saw larger quantities of negative content and others saw larger quantities of positive content. Researchers who analyzed the results found that users exposed to negative statuses were more likely to post negative messages of their own. The effect was the same for positive statuses, suggesting that emotions are “contagious” on Facebook.

Did Facebook Behave Unethically?

Because the study displayed the effects of emotional contagion, some Facebook users have suggested that Facebook toyed with users’ emotions. A few have even proposed that Facebook should compensate users for its behavior by donating money to organizations that focus on mental health issues. Facebook has pointed out that the statuses might have appeared in a user’s timeline anyway, and that the research was anonymous, so the company didn’t gain any information about identifiable individuals.

Even if the experiment caused no actual harm and even if user privacy was protected, though, this research deviates from standard ethical norms for scientific research. Informed consent is almost always necessary in scientific research, with some exceptions for research that examines things that would happen to users anyway. Facebook’s argument is that users would have seen positive and negative statuses no matter what. Because users saw statuses they might not otherwise see, though, some users have argued that Facebook directly manipulated emotions.

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, one of the data scientists who worked on the project argued that the impact on users was minimal. He did apologize for the wording of the study, which he admitted might have made the study seem “sinister.”


  1. Albergotti, R. (2014, June 30). Furor Erupts Over Facebook’s Experiment on Users. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/articles/furor-erupts-over-facebook-experiment-on-users-1404085840
  2. Gray, S. (2014, June 29). Facebook admits manipulating 689,003 users’ emotions in psychology experiment. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2014/06/29/facebook_admits_it_manipulated_689003_users_emotions_in_psychology_experiment/

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Maria


    July 2nd, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    If something or someone is going to manipulate me emotionally it certainly won’t be social media sites.

  • shera s

    shera s

    July 3rd, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    There are too many factors that come into play when you are looking at situations like this and trying to pinpoint the one specific thing that could cause all of this. It could be the poverty itself, or it could be that the parents are working hard and are away from home a lot and so not as much is being done at home to reinforce the things being taught in school. There are also the issues of abuse and addiction that also seem to go hand in hand with children who are raised in homes where poverty is prevalent, so alot of things that have to be taken into account in homes like this. The one thing that we do know is that this continues to hurt children so the war on povery must not be considered a done deal.

  • Harold


    July 3rd, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Why are they even allowed to screw around like this? If they want me to use their product then they need to stop conducting research with my posts. That is not what they are supposed to be around for. I thought that they were to be a forum through which I could share photos and information with my friends, and not where my life and emotions could or should be up for grabs to be toyed with. What did they think that they would stand to gain from actions like this and how am I possibly going to benefit from this intrusion into my life. Shame on facebook!

  • Ginger


    July 4th, 2014 at 6:47 AM

    I scarcely believe that Facebook is this institute of evil that everyone is making them out to be.

  • Sheryll


    July 6th, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    Look, if I am this caught up in others’ feelings then I already have some issues that need to be dealt with right? I mean, since when did Facebook have to be the one thing in our lives that guages our thoughts and feelings and is the one thing that we look to to either make us feel better or worse?

    People were already going to be prone to believeing this way even before there was such a thing as Facebook or other social media forums. There are just bound to be those people who get very caught up in the emotions of others and they allow what is happening to others impact what happens to them.

  • Skylar


    July 7th, 2014 at 2:31 PM

    Changing news feeds
    taking down pictures
    prohibiting posts that they don’t deem suitable
    what is this, the social media poilce?
    If I can’t say what I think and post the pics that I want then why do I even want to remain a part of it?

  • Tawny


    July 11th, 2014 at 2:37 PM

    When are we going to stand up and take responsibility for our own actions?

    I don’t think that what they did was right and it does feel a little manipulative to me. But how much power are we going to continue to give them?

    And the more we talk about it then guess what? The bigger they get and the more power that they have to exert over us.

    Don’t like what they are doing? Then sign off and deactivate your page and never go back on there again. Kind of daunting to think about isn’t it?

  • mike


    July 19th, 2014 at 7:39 PM

    Keep calm and quit facebook.

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