Ethiopian extremists’ facebook posts’d be depressing you – Insights from a new research

Last month, the international media was buzz with a controversial research conducted on facebook. The study, titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”, published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cornel University researchers and Facebook’s code data science unit teamed up to test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. newsfeed

For a period of one-week in 2012, .they altered the content of news feeds for a random sample of 689,003 Facebook users. Participants were randomly selected based on their User ID, resulting in a total of ~155,000 participants per condition who posted at least one status update during the experimental period. For one group of users they removed content that contained positive words, for another group they removed content that contained negative words. They then measured whether biasing the emotional content changed the emotional content of status updates by the users. It did. Making feeds more negative has led to more negative behavior, and vice versa.

The study of “Emotional contagion” is a science much older than the advent of social media. A study by Elaine Hatfield et al a decade ago claims:

“There is considerable evidence that people tend: (a) to mimic the facial expressions, vocal expressions, postures, and instrumental behaviors of those around them, and thereby; (b) to “catch” others’ emotions as a consequence of such facial, vocal, and postural feedback.” And this, the study concludes, “ tell us something about the awesome contemporary power … of the mass media as these agencies of large-scale emotional and cognitive contagion continue to expand their capacities to define reality for billions of people.”

Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments, this new study however ventures into unexplored territory. It tries to test whether emotional contagion, people transferring positive and negative emotions to others, occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals.

The research on emotional contagion on facebook was severely criticized for having methodological problems and small statistically significant results in addition to being conducted without the consent of users.

Nevertheless, it tells us that our emotions are impacted by the contents our facebook newsfeed even if in a smaller scale. The researchers wrote:

When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.

This got me thinking: How are we affected by the daily negative posts from the Nay-Sayers and the facebook army of the far-right?

The daily barrage of negative posts and comments from the far-right facebook army that crowd our newsfeed will surely contribute in dampening our mood according to the study. If we subscribe to certain individuals/accounts that produce negative posts 2-5 times a day (come on, you know who they are), the emotional damage we receive may require a study on its own merit, probably on a clinical level.

The emotional contagion will lead us to produce “fewer positive posts and more negative posts” multiplying the effect. This may explain why the discourse on the Ethiopian facebook space is mostly negative.

So what to take from this study? Get rid of the Nay-Sayers if you care for your mental health. Or better, the facebook posts of the opposition seriously harms you and others around you.


Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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