LOL: Why Facebook “Science” is Fake News

We have come to an age where big data – especially when it is data gathered about our own person – has become a formidable entity.  What can someone else do if they have access to all of this information about ourselves? How much of our behavior can they predict? How easily can they Target us?

Facebook showed in an experiment that they know so much about us they can manipulate our emotions. However, I question the results. Here is a quote summarizing the findings:

The researchers found that moods were contagious. The people who saw more positive posts responded by writing more positive posts. Similarly, seeing more negative content prompted the viewers to be more negative in their own posts.

You might be scared to think that someone at Facebook could turn on a ‘negativity switch’ and alter your mood. I’m not ready to believe Facebook has such power.  The researchers say “moods” are contagious, but they did no measurements (if such a thing is even objectively measurable) on people’s moods.  No, instead they used algorithms to analyze the content of nearly 700,000 random users’ posts.  Why is this distinction necessary? Allow me to explain.

The study conducted relies too heavily on two large assumptions: (1) online posts accurately represent real life, and (2) language is a definitive and universal indicator of mood.

#NoFilter

By now everyone ‘knows’ that social media acts as a filter for what we share with our friends. I can’t speak for all people, but I can honestly say if I was truly depressed, I wouldn’t immediately announce it to my closest 2,000 friends on Facebook. That is not to say there are not those people who use social media to be brutally honest about struggles they face. I’ve seen many friends post about lost loved ones, and I’m glad they do, because often I would have no idea otherwise.  However, much fewer people post something every day after that, even if the pain they experience lasts for a long time.  On the other side of the coin, someone might be having a great week, but they’re not necessarily going to post on social media about it every day. Except for that 1% of our social media contacts who may truly be addicted (you know of whom I speak), most of us don’t live out our lives via social media.

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Even before Photoshop this kid is still way cooler than I am.

Language of Our Lives (LOL)

What does “lol” really mean? You might think I’m an idiot for asking this question. Of course it means “laugh out loud;” everyone knows that. However, I’m under the impression that “lol” has taken on a life of its own. Language evolves.  Many insults of the 1800s (“foozler,” “jollocks,” “mumbling cove,” to name a few) mean absolutely nothing now, and many words once deemed harmless (not putting these words in my blog) are now deemed very offensive.  What does this have to do with lol? Everything. If you’re like me, you’ve heard at least one person say “lol” out loud, maybe even pronounced “lole” (as opposed to “l-o-l”). You may have also noticed that people sometimes use “lol” to mean something different than “haha” even though technically they should mean exactly the same thing.  In my experience the irony is that typing “lol” often means you certainly did not laugh out loud. If you laughed out loud, you would have typed, “haha,” or if the joke was particularly funny, “hahahahahahaha!”

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So how does “lol” relate to a social experiment conducted by a social media company?   Many people often ask “How are you doing?” with no real desire to actually know how I’m doing, and my answer is often an equally shallow “I’m doing alright.” What if people are only using “lol” it because it has become an online social norm? There is no indication that more people are laughing out loud just because the phrase “lol” was invented.   Along this same line of thought, what if the results of the Facebook Experiment showing “moods were contagious,” was actually a misinterpretation of data showing language was contagious?

Language evolves. Also, monkey See. Monkey Do.

Conclusion of Inconclusiveness

I think the results of the Facebook experiment are at best inconclusive.  They found a correlation in data, but – at least from the information I have read about it – there needs to be more research into causation.

6 comments

  1. Great post, Bobby! I had no clue Facebook had findings about their feed effecting users moods, but I am happy I learned of it in conjunction with your argument. I agree with your points, that often times users are not posting everyday to inform friends of their moods. If I did that, I would need to post every two hours to update people with where I am at LOL (no, I didn’t actually laugh out loud, but it does seem fitting!).
    Branching off of that, I found your point about our use of language especially intriguing. Unless the researchers took the time to understand the context of each post they studied from the 700,000 random profiles selected, I believe it would be incredibly difficult to draw sensical conclusions. I like the way you put it, maybe our moods aren’t contagious, instead it’s our language.

  2. Lucy Wilson · ·

    Really great job with this, Bobby! I think you did a great job breaking down the study, highlighting the two overarching important assumptions that Facebook is so heavily relying on.

    To your post, my only addition would be one from my own experience. Surely, I can recall times when I’ve logged on to Facebook, seen a post I didn’t like and noticeably felt my mood altered going forward. From that, yes, I would say that Facebook has the ability to influence our emotions.

    However, it’s important to isolate further the cause of this mood change. Sometimes, it was the result of a sad post (perhaps, like you mentioned, about lost loved ones). Facebook has the ability to put this higher up on my feed and thus has the ability to influence my mood. However, other times, I became upset just because it was a specific person that posted and is totally unrelated to tone or positivity or negativity of content. In this instance, I would argue that Facebook is powerless in influencing my emotions.

  3. katherinekorol · ·

    I really enjoyed this post. I think it’s great that you took this study and disputed it, because I definitely think that there are some flaws in their findings. I think it is really difficult for Facebook to conclude that seeing the mood in other people’s posts causes our own moods to change, but I do think that it would be more accurate to say that there is some correlation. I have found that researchers often get causation and correlation mixed up, and I think that is the problem here, so I definitely agree with you on that one.
    The point that you make about our overuse of “lol” is spot on. I saw a viral tweet one time that said “No more putting ‘lol’ at the end of my statements in 2018. I said what I said” and I think that is the perfect representation of the fact that we use lol way too much now – so much so that it has lost its meaning.

  4. Addison LeBeau · ·

    Great post! My favorite part was your thoughts on how language has evolved. While some grammar purists will complain that the younger generation has lost respect for traditional grammar, I think that really Facebook and internet users have evolved the english language with new hints of nuances that weren’t possible to formerly be expressed. I think as a community we should accept these linguistic changes with open arms and see what other ways it will continue to evolve online!

  5. tylercook95 · ·

    Really Liked this Post Bobby! It makes me think that Facebook thinks it really is the center of people’s lives. To believe that they have the power to manipulate our emotions is definitely a bold claim. I feel as though I don’t spend enough time on facebook anymore to give it the power to change my emotions for the day. I really liked your thoughts on the fact that most people don’t post their emotions on facebook all the time. I feel as though stories on Instagram and snapchat are used much more than posts on Facebook currently, so really those social media platforms might have more of an effect on us than facebook does. The ability to change emotions would be a really hard thing to collect data on because as we learn in social psychology emotions are interpreted differently by everyone. How would they really be able to collect data based on what people post? Also, most of the people that post, as you mentioned are either really happy about something or really sad about something. So you only get far-reaching data and very little in the middle. Ideally, most of your timeline isn’t just random updates from people who are just feeling so-so. Those people are definitely good ones to unfriend! (haha just kidding). Overall love the post!

  6. Nice post. I do agree that many of these results that get picked up by the press aren’t great studies and overstate their conclusions. Sometimes this is the researchers fault, sometimes it is the press sensationalizing the findings and missing the nuance. I think what they can go is target certain types of people with very tailored content….and that’s where they make their money.

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