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Regulators Probe Facebook’s Emotion Experiment

    July 2, 2014
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

An experiment Facebook conducted with some of its users two years ago has been getting a lot of negative attention in recent days after a paper about it was published. The company basically took about 700,000 users, and tested the effects of showing them more positive or more negative posts in their News Feeds. The goal was to see how it affected users’ emotions (or at least the emotions conveyed in their own posts).

Facebook has language in its terms of service, which indicate that it can use info for its own internal research, but it has come to light that this language was actually added after the test was conducted. Some people are outraged, and are calling Facebook’s practices unethical.

Consumer Watchdog has publicly attacked the company (though this is pretty standard), and now regulators are taking a look at the situation.

The Financial Times reports (registration required) that the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK is now investigating the company, and that it said it’s too early to tell what part of the law the company may have broken (if any). According to the report, the ICO has the power to force a company to change its policies and levy fines of up to £500,000.

Additionally, as Bloomberg reports, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s office has been in contact with the company, which is important to note as Facebook’s European headquarters are located in Ireland. That report includes a statement from a Facebook UK spokesperson:

“It’s clear that people were upset by this study and we take responsibility for it. We want to do better in the future and are improving our process based on this feedback. The study was done with appropriate protections for people’s information and we are happy to answer any questions regulators may have.”

Facebook’s Adam Kramer, who co-authored the study, previously offered an explanation in a Facebook post. COO Sheryl Sandberg also reportedly said that the company did a poor job of communicating about it.

Image via YouTube


  • Loki57

    It seems Facebook is a big enough predator, with an obnoxious enough history, to be getting rather close inspection for this mess.

    Columbia ethics professor Bob Klitzman has written a good analysis of the Facebook mood experiment research. Note, in the fog of corporate propaganda and news reports with mistakes, he misses a couple of points since clarified here, eg UCSF not having direct involvement, despite being cited.

    http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/02/opinion/klitzman-facebook-experiment /

    Klitzman concludes that the experiment “violates accepted research ethics”.

    He goes beyond what’s discussed by others, in detailing the issues of the journal, PNAS, that mandates those publishing in it certify that “all experiments have been conducted according to the principles expressed in the Declaration of Helsinki,” which also dictates that subjects be informed of the study’s “aims, methods…and the discomfort it may entail.”

    Even if Facebook is not subject to HHS IRB rules as Cornell is, “Danger Muffin” (Kramer’s FB alias) falls flat in expressing his sincere concerns, where if he truly had any, he wouldn’t have perpetrated a fraud in conjunction with his employer by being a principle in a psych study that violated those standards, on top of any others.

    Klitzman also spells out history behind the 1974 National Research Act, which imposed US law on such research. That was in large part triggered by deceiving black syphilis patients about penicillin becoming available, in order to preserve a long term study group with an infection that became curable.

  • http://www.socialrep.com/ Chris Kenton

    It’s one thing to use data for internal research, as the Terms of Service state. It’s another thing entirely to leverage your platform to manipulate users in order to generate data for internal research. If FB were just interpreting data created organically by users, no one would be up in arms about this.

  • http://www.cannabis-spain.com Paz LeBon

    i sense people are this very moment, after all these years, looking for the next big thing to replace facebook