According to Adrienne LaFrance on The Atlantic, Facebook purposely manipulated what users saw on their timeline in order to "study how it would affect their moods."
The backlash, in this case, seems tied directly to the sense that Facebook manipulated people—used them as guinea pigs—without their knowledge, and in a setting where that kind of manipulation feels intimate. There's also a contextual question. People may understand by now that their News Feed appears differently based on what they click—this is how targeted advertising works—but the idea that Facebook is altering what you see to find out if it can make you feel happy or sad seems in some ways cruel.
Mood researchers have been toying with human emotion since long before the Internet age, but it's hard to think of a comparable experiment offline. It might be different, Fiske suggests, if a person were to find a dime in a public phone booth, then later learn that a researcher had left the money there to see what might happen to it.
"But if you find money on the street and it makes you feel cheerful, the idea that someone placed it there, it's not as personal," she said. "I think part of what's disturbing for some people about this particular research is you think of your News Feed as something personal. I had not seen before, personally, something in which the researchers had the cooperation of Facebook to manipulate people... Who knows what other research they're doing."
Here is what Facebook had to say, noting that perhaps, causing its users anxiety in the name of science, may not have been the best of ideas.
"The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product," says Kramer. "We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook."
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