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Emotional contagion proven to exist in social media

A woman holds a placard during a protest calling for the release of a group of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls outside Nigeria House on May 9, 2014, in London, England.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The spread of emotion from one person to another was once thought to be a function of subconscious cues that required people to be able to see each other. New research has shown that emotional contagion is a phenomenon that is and has been a part of social media interactions between people. The study was conducted by Adam D. I. Kramer with the Core Data Science Team at Facebook, Inc. and colleagues from the University of California and Cornell University. The research was reported in the May 2, 2013, edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Emotional contagion has been determined to be a reality in over 20 years of documented research where people were able to see each other. The researchers presumed that similar unconscious emotional transfer was active in social media. This is the first proof that emotional contagion is a function of social media.

To test the theory, the researchers observed the Facebook activity of 689,003 people for one week in January of 2012. The scientists monitored the participant’s reaction to positive and negative content appearing in the “News Feed” feature of Facebook. The results indicate a direct correlation between the emotional content of posts read and the emotional content of posts produced by the participants.

The experiment was designed so that some participants saw a majority of positive emotional content while some saw a majority of news items that were negative. The participants that saw more negative content produced 0.04 percent more negative content. Those participants that saw more positive content produced 0.06 percent more positive content. The study indicates that emotional contagion does exist in social media and has a small but significant effect on the subsequent posts of social media users.

One extreme example of the emotional contagion that social media possesses is the worldwide response to the capture of 276 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram on April 15, 2014. The emotional appeal and evident emotional contagion of the #BringBackOurGirls thread on Twitter has produced a continued outpouring of emotion laden tweets since the thread was begun. The influence of social media and the emotions involved as well as the number of people that felt a need to contribute their voice to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign produced international government cooperation in efforts to free the enslaved girls.

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