Facebook: Weapon of Mass Manipulation?

Is Facebook making us crazy on purpose?

Posted Jun 30, 2014

For some reason, this pic always uploads upside down!

June 30, 2014

Did you feel more depressed or negative between January 11th and 18th, 2012?  Were you on Facebook?  Well your worsened mood may have been related to your being unwittingly enrolled in a study to test the effects of altering your newsfeed to serve you more negative posts.  Does that make you angry?  Well, it turns out we all “consented” to being guinea pigs when we signed up for the app.  I’m sure you read that part of the 9,000-word User Agreement carefully.  Our “status” in the great Facebook social network experiment was recently exposed in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”, Adam Kramer of Facebook and his colleagues at UCSF and Cornell showed that amplifying the positivity or negativity of what people were exposed to in their newsfeed correlated with the positivity or negativity of their subsequent posts. (Although it has to be said that 1.  a negative or positive word in a post does not a mood make; 2. People who don't post at all - lurkers - may have emotional reactions to what they're viewing; 3. the effect size was small but significant, even if you buy the research methodology; and 4. the process of being on Facebook itself affects mood, as I detail below.)

That’s right, folks.  Facebook chose to deliberately upset 155,000 of us in order to prove that they could do it.  (Over 600,000 people in total had newsfeeds altered one way or another.)  It leaves me wondering what else they could manipulate, since they clearly can affect mental health.  The economy?  Elections?  If Mark Zuckerberg had an enemies list, could he tweak their newsfeeds in order to annoy them?  Could he make them feel less popular with their friends?  Could a government or corporation buy the power to play with our minds?  It sounds paranoid – but in this age of NSA revelations, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched.  Facebook may only amount to a small part of our lives, but with many users spending an hour a day or more on the site, it’s worth our scrutiny.

With that level of use, “emotional contagion” sounds like a little scary.  Going viral takes on a whole new meaning.  Actually, psychologists have wondered if and how emotions leap from person to person in real life for some time.  In 2008, researchers looking at 20 years of the Framingham heart study found that people who were more connected to happy people were more likely to become happy.  Another study by the same group showed that depressive symptoms, too, were contagious.  It’s not just that depressed or happy people tend to cluster.  As you’d expect, the people who constitute our emotional environment influence us powerfully.  We’re wonderfully and tragically interconnected, from neurons to neighborhoods.  Nature meets nurture in our relational realm.

Of course, much negativity comes with the Facebook environment in and of itself.  Rouis earlier reported that those who spend more time on the site are less satisfied with themselves and their friends.  Scrolling past the Fakebook joy-display, “humblebrags” and manicured awesome lives of others performing for their “audiences” while you sit in front of your computer screen in your pajamas is hardly a recipe for happiness.  Other researchers have shown that Facebook use produces a decline in college students’ subjective well-being, and that simply using Facebook actually increases depressive symptoms and lowers self-esteem.  Tiggeman and Slater in Australia found that the more time teen girls spent online and especially on Facebook, the more they internalized “the thin ideal, body surveillance, and the drive for thinness.”  My Psychology Today colleague Amy Muise demonstrated that Facebook use increased jealousy.  “I was already a bit jealous and insecure, but I think that Facebook has definitely made me much, much worse,” said one study participant.  It’s such common practice to monitor even ex-partners through the site that we’ve invented words for it.  Facestalking and creeping are bound to cause emotional distress.  If the medium is the message – the medium is definitely a mixed bag.

Facebook readily admits that its newsfeed algorithm is constantly being tweaked to find out what keeps us most engaged with the site.  It seems that emotional content is most engaging.  The Facebook TMZ of TMI may be keeping us from developing and sustaining calmness, wisdom and knowledge – far less popular than inflammatory opinions and the excitement and adventure of personalityFacebook may be making us crazy.

Maybe your algorithm was tweaked, but these are your friends after all, even if the Facebook definition of friend stretches the term towards abstraction.  Isn’t their emotion, including their negativity, reasonable food for our thought and communion?  Perhaps.  But if negativity is to be transformed, it has to be held in relationship, kindness and skill.  A comment thread is not the tapestry we seek.

Facebook has crossed our relational boundaries more than any previous technology, for better and worse.  The putative effects of changing our Facebook environments should give us pause.  At the extremes may lie people like Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter.  He was clearly disturbed for much of his anger-filled life, but how much did social media exacerbate his disenchantment with being unpopular?  After all, the Facebook environment is as much about popularity and the accumulation of “likes” as it is about connection.  And the flip side of popularity is exclusion and shame, a deadly combination for the most vulnerable among us.

We humans are social beings, and Facebook is popular because we crave contact, stimulation, entertainment and engagement.  Facebook seems to be good for all of that.  But we used to think smoking was good for us too.  Maybe it’s time to think about a Surgeon General’s Warning for Facebook.  This addictive new drug has many side effects indeed.

At the very least, there needs to be some debate about the ethics of manipulating our newsfeed without our consent or choice.  After that, some serious debate and reflection about all the emotional challenges of our technological, connected and disconnected age.  Our relational environment deserves better.

(I’m not the only one talking about this.  The Atlantic and Marketwatch have also raised concerns.)

© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

Occasional Newsletter to find out about my new book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks: www.RaviChandraMD.com
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