Over the weekend, your Facebook feed may have exploded with anger— at Facebook. Researchers from the company, in collaboration with academic social scientists, published the results from a study in which the company manipulated the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users. Some users saw news feeds full of negative material, others saw material that was positive. The idea was to see how those two conditions made people feel.
Well, the answer was that people felt really, really mad.
“This study has been characterized as Facebook deliberately trying to depress people,” says Michelle N. Meyer, a bioethicist at the Icahn School of Medicine. “Which, put that way, strikes people as potentially dangerous— and rude. People don’t like to feel like they’re being jerked around.”
Getting manipulated isn’t especially new, she says. “We’re manipulated all the time. Every day. You know, your mother wants you to eat brussels sprouts.”
However, it may be rude of Facebook to rub users’ faces in its ability to manipulate what they see.
That highlights an uncomfortable reality, says Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain, who studies the internet and society.
“We are relying more and more on just a handful of intermediaries to offer us a view of the world,” he says. “And the view that they offer is produced by a secret sauce that nobody reviews.”