Belfast Telegraph

Regrets over Facebook emotion contagion experiment

The study wanted to monitor how people reacted to content on their Facebook news feeds
The study wanted to monitor how people reacted to content on their Facebook news feeds

The scientific journal that published a study by Facebook and two US universities examining people's online mood swings regrets how the social experiment was handled.

The experiment prompted privacy regulators in the UK and France to open inquiries into whether Facebook may have violated any laws.

In a note of contrition, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the decision to manipulate the content appearing on the Facebook pages of about 700,000 people without their prior consent may have violated some principles of academic research.

The journal also pointed out that, as a for-profit company governed by its own terms of service, Facebook had no obligation to adhere to those scientific principles.

"It is nevertheless a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out," wrote Inder Verma, the Washington-based journal's editor in chief.

The unusual "editorial expression of concern" surfaced a day after Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg apologised, acknowledging that the world's largest social network should have done a better job communicating about the experiment.

Facebook allowed researchers to manipulate the content that appeared in the main section, or "news feed", of a small fraction of the social network's nearly 1.3 billion users.

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The data-scientists conducted the study during one week in January 2012. They were trying to collect evidence to prove their thesis that people's moods could spread like an "emotional contagion" depending on what they were reading.

Although their findings were published a month ago, the experiment did not trigger outrage until the past few days, after blogs and essays in The New York Times and The Atlantic raised red flags about the ethics of treating people like laboratory rats without their permission.

Facebook's data-use policy says the Menlo Park, California, company can deploy user information for "internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement".

Facebook has denied that the controversial “emotion contagion” experiment was funded by the US Department of Defence (DoD). The firm said Facebook is categorically not a willing participant in the DoD’s Minerva Research Initiative.

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