What PR Pros Can Glean From Facebook’s Secret Psychological Tests

Facebook thumbs downFacebook's psychological study of how positive and negative posts affect the online behavior and attitude of its users has brought it unwanted media scrutiny today from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate, the Guardian and other media outlets—with the usual trickle-down effect—casting the social media giant as an amoral science lab experimenting on unwitting subjects.

According to the Times, Facebook "manipulated the news feeds of over half a million randomly selected users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw." In an experiment conducted in 2012, Facebook hid certain emotional words from 700,000 users' news feeds, to see what effect they had on subsequent behavior on the social network, according to the Guardian. The experiment was conducted without users' knowledge or consent, although the company responded that its terms of service allows for this kind of news feed manipulation, according to the Times.

In the Guardian's coverage, a researcher unconnected to the Facebook experiment said that a company does not get an "ethical free pass" when users check a terms of service box. The overall tone of the media coverage plays into the conception of Facebook as a global octopus with an evil genius for absorbing and manipulating data on individuals.

But once the outrage—real or feigned—subsides, brand communicators will likely do some absorbing of their own and consider the experiment's findings.

Most significantly, the experiment determined that moods are "contagious," according to the Times. People who saw more positive words in their Facebook news feed tended to write posts that were tonally positive, while people who saw more negative posts expressed themselves on Facebook more negatively. The results of the study were published in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America."

If you're charged with brand communications on social channels, you might be interested to know that on Facebook, "when positive expressions were reduced [for those whose news feeds that were examined], people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred."

So you might consider being thankful to Facebook for launching the study—and perhaps also thankful that you had nothing to do with it.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI



About Steve Goldstein

Steve Goldstein is editorial director of events for Access Intelligence’s PR News brand, which encompasses premium, how-to content, data and competitive intelligence for public relations professionals; PR News Online; PR News conferences, webinars and awards programs; and PR News guidebooks. Previously at AI Steve was editorial director of min, min ’s b2b and minonline as well as managing editor of CableFAX: The Magazine and CableWorld. Before joining Access Intelligence, he was executive editor of World Screen News, and editor of Film/Tape World, which covered film, television and commercial production in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Deals of the Week

Get $150 Off PR News' Big 4 Conference

Join PR News at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco on August 6 for the Big 4 Conference, where expert communicators will share in-depth case studies from their Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram strategies.

Use code “150” at checkout to save $150 on the regular rate.

Get $50 off PR News' Social Media Guidebook


This 11-chapter guidebook focuses on communicating in a mobile and social world, winning the attention of audiences, social media listening strategy and technology, social media measurement and so much more.

Use code “50off” at checkout.

Save $100 on a PR News Subscription



Let PR News become your weekly, go-to resource for the latest PR trends, case studies and tip sheets. Topics covered include visual storytelling, social media, measurement, crisis management and media relations.

Use code “SUBDEAL” at checkout.