My friend Monica at High Heels and High Chairs (Do you read her blog? You should.) posted a link to the story about Facebook’s “research” on whether news feeds affect what users post. Monica said it reminded her of our social media trigger discussion.

It’s almost too much to bear, is it not? I mean, we’ve just now accustomed ourselves to this whole social media gig. But to find out that we were lab rats, so to speak, in a major mood and emotion experiment? It seems like the storyline of some movie we’d label “science fiction.” My response to Monica was that I couldn’t bring myself to read about it all.

I heard a bit on the radio and then poked around a few articles, though. If you haven’t seen the scoop, here’s a blurb from The Atlantic:

For one week in January 2012, data scientists skewed what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged into its service. Some people were shown content with a preponderance of happy and positive words; some were shown content analyzed as sadder than average. And when the week was over, these manipulated users were more likely to post either especially positive or negative words themselves. 

The irony is that, as our social media trigger discussion has illustrated beautifully, even some posts that fell into the category of “happy” may provoke negative feelings in some users. I have no doubt that posts like “Baby Jane is here!” or “Just ran ten miles. Feel great!” and “Loving Venice, Italy! Happy 40th to me!” all would have fallen into the category of “positive” for the Facebook researchers. Yet, as your comments clearly showed, all of these could have triggered negative emotions in folks.

(So phooey on you, Facebook!)

But here’s a takeaway of the study, again from The Atlantic:

As far as the study was concerned, this meant that it had shown “that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” It touts that this emotional contagion can be achieved without “direct interaction between people” (because the unwitting subjects were only seeing each others’ News Feeds).

Well, um, yes. So while I could go on and on and on about the failings of the Institutional Review Boards that were involved in this study and question the ethics of the researchers, I won’t. (The Atlantic does, though, so go give it a look.)

What I will say is this, and it follows on the themes we’ve explored a lot here. That is, in this world where we are inundated with information and where organizations purposely attempt to manipulate our emotions, whether via news feeds or through their marketing practices, the burden is on us to guard our hearts.

I am reminded of this post, which I wrote after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, on caring for our emotional selves. There, I suggested that if you are one who gets drawn into others’ tragedies easily, you may want to consciously edit what media you allow yourself to consume.

This Facebook study, though, is like a hammer over the head and it’s got me thinking these words: OBSERVE. DON’T REACT.

It’s something I am working on more and more in just about every context in my life from my relationships to my media consumption. I knew it was an important skill when I just felt like it was tragedy and drama I was exposed to. But this big reminder that companies are actively and purposefully trying to manipulate my moods? It’s got me rededicating myself to the practice.

How do you guys feel about Facebook’s study? Will you be limiting, editing, or otherwise changing you use of it now?

(This piece by Judith Orloff, M.D. is a great read on staying centered and protected. If you find yourself drawn into others’ moods, dramas and tragedies via social media, give it and her full body of work a look.)

2 Responses to “Manipulation, Social Media & Emotional Wellness”

  1. on 30 Jun 2014 at 2:04 pmMonica

    Thanks for the link.

    Thoughtful (as always) response. I have had my own issues with social media this past week as someone I am close to essentially slandered another person I am close to. To take a private argument very public, while misrepresenting facts and using them to put themselves in a positive light, was extremely frustrating and agonizing to watch. I’ve seen so many positives from these public forums – the ability to share photos with my out of town family, staying connected with former colleagues and classmates that I so enjoyed sharing thoughts with and can do so again, creating a network and touchpoint during the isolating days of stay at home mom-dom – that it was almost shocking to see someone use it for such vitriol. And I know this person wasn’t the first to do it (just the first time I’d seen something (not related to elections) get so nasty).

    It’s a brave new world out there. For better or worse.

  2. on 30 Jun 2014 at 5:16 pmKristine Rudolph

    Oh, ick.

    I am so torn, too. So much good comes from my interactions on social media that I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater yet.

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