Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Editorial Exchange: Grasping Social Media's Influence

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Editorial Exchange: Grasping Social Media's Influence

Article excerpt

Editorial Exchange: Grasping social media's influence

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An editorial from the Winnipeg Free Press, published July 8:

Facebook, the social networking company, has shown it can play with the emotions of its millions of users by tweaking the algorithm that selects content of their news feed. The report of the company's experiment, published this month in a scientific journal, casts light on the power of social-media managers over their customers. It also raises questions about ethics and accountability in the control of social media.

The experiment, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by Adam D.I. Kramer, a researcher who works for Facebook, together with two Cornell University scientists, Jamie E. Guillory and Jeffrey T. Hancock. In the week of Jan. 11 to 18, 2012, they kept negative messages out of the news feed to selected Facebook users and kept positive messages out of the feed to other selected users. Then they monitored the messages from those users to see if their mood was affected by the news feed content they received.

The news feed is a filtering device within Facebook that keeps each user's message volume within manageable limits. Most people's friends put out far more messages than one person could ever read. The news feed notices which kinds of messages a user most often reads and selects messages accordingly. The researchers narrowed that selection to strip out messages containing emotionally negative words for some users and emotionally positive words for others. Then they watched the results.

The experimenters' conclusion, given in the journal article was: "We show, via a massive (N 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues."

When Facebook users learned of this experiment and complained about the dirty trick played on them, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg apologized for upsetting people and said the company should have communicated better. …

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