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Facebook conducts social experiment on users

Monday - 6/30/2014, 9:42am  ET

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Facebook manipulated the newsfeeds of thousands of users in a social experiment. (WTOP File)

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WASHINGTON -- Facebook has conducted controversial social and psychological experiments on users by manipulating their newsfeeds.

For one week in 2012, the site's data scientists enabled an algorithm to automatically omit content that contained words associated with either positive or negative emotions from the central news feeds of 689,003 users, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook aimed to determine whether it could alter the emotional state of its users and prompt them to post either more positive or negative content. Also, the Facebook Data Science Team was testing the theory that users who see posts detailing all the fun friends are having makes them feel bad as though they have boring lives.

Numbers of experts on ethics, media and bloggingtell The Wall Street Journal that the social network's research is completely unacceptable. Facebook's terms of service suggest the study was permissible.

The Wall Street Journal notes that Adam Kramer, the data scientist at Facebook leading the study, says he's now not sure the research justified "all of this anxiety."

"At the end of the day, the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it," Kramer wrote on Facebook.

The research was published in the March issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research showed that the emotional content of a Facebook user's posts was skewed by messages friends posted. People seeing fewer positive posts, for example, reduced their positive posts by one-tenth of a percent.

"What many of us feared is already a reality: Facebook is using us as lab rats, and not just to figure out which ads we'll respond to but actually change our emotions," wrote Animalnewyork.com, a blog post that drew attention to the study Friday morning.

Facebook emphasizes that the users with altered feeds were anonymous.

WTOP's Kristi King contributed to this report.

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