Facebook News Feed Manipulation: Are Online Emotions Contagious?


Home / Facebook News Feed Manipulation: Are Online Emotions Contagious?

Are online emotions contagious? Image by mantasmagorical

When people interact and make decisions, are they better decisions?

What if the interaction does not occur face to face?

Does the emotional tenor of a Facebook post make an impact?

Facebook conducted an experiment on users in January 2012 that answers a few of these questions.

Emotions and Groupthink

According to the groupthink film, groupthink occurs “[w]hen team members’ desire for agreement overrides their ability to evaluate alternative courses of action, they no longer see how a unanimous decision can actually threaten their goals.”  Groupthink results in poor decisions that others assume to be based on logic.

Long before the rise of social media, research into how groups make decisions uncovered this unsettling phenomenon, and later social research focused on the concept of groupthink to learn more.

Studies implicated the Groupthink phenomenon in the Challenger explosion in 1986, the invasion of Cuba in 1961, and catastrophe at Pearl Harbor in 1941, according to Dr. Irving Janis and CRM Learning.

Following the Challenger explosion, companies were urged to examine their group decision making.

Social networks are now everywhere online. These networks expose more people to group conversations on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Interactions occur in cyberspace instead of across a conference room table.

New research focuses on how online interaction can influence the opinions and emotions of individuals – and the outcome is less surprising to those who understand groupthink.

International Aid and Online Appeals

One of the things that distinguishes Internet interaction is its speed.  People can see, and react, to a post or appeal within seconds.

2013 research by Kathleen M. Sheehan and Andrew T. Young of West Virginia University indicates that online activity could influence attitudes toward giving aid to other countries, yielding as much as “a 55% increase in humanitarian aid flows.”

The researchers summarize, “What our results suggest is that, in the age of the Internet, those kneejerk reactions – those action tendencies – are no longer limited to the homeless person encountered during a walk downtown; they extend to individuals and entire countries across the globe.

Now it is possible to reach a mass of individuals with an emotional appeal, and have them respond almost instantly.

Facebook emotions are contagious. Image by dhester.

Emotional Experimentation on Facebook

Dr. Adam Kramer and his team manipulated news feed content on Facebook user’s accounts to see what effect positive and negative posts had on the subsequent posts of Facebook users.

By taking this action, Facebook was conducting, they say, “the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.”  

The researchers reported the “experiments took place for 1 wk (January 1118, 2012). Participants were randomly selected based on their User ID, resulting in a total of 155,000 participants per condition who posted at least one status update during the experimental period.

Kramer and team then either amplified the number of positive or negative posts that were in the randomly selected users news feed, removing others that did not fit into that person’s assigned group.

The research demonstrated,  for “people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in peoples status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods…” 

Of further interest was how long the effect lasted.  When researchers reduced the emotional content for users in general, they found people were “less expressive overall on the following days.

Implications of Interacting with Groups

As older research on groupthink demonstrates, people need to be aware that their ability to make a rational, logical recommendation may be squelched in a group.  A tendency to censor comments that would interfere with building a group consensus lead people to self-censor.  The outcomes may be catastrophic.

When interacting on social media, the speed with which we can respond should cause us to pause.  Do we really want to support a particular cause or point of view?  Maybe we need to step back and learn a bit more about the appeal.

If you use social media, keep in mind that the general emotional state of the posts we read impacts our own emotional state.  For our own mental health, it may be time to block the haters, whiners, and generally negative folks whose posts show up in our news feeds.

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