Facebook Updated User Agreement With ‘Research’ Months After Emotion Experiment

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
Font Size:

Facebook has been on the receiving end of some emotional feedback since it was revealed last week the social media giant conducted an experiment on users’ emotions. Now the company could be in for some legal feedback as well for failing to update its user agreement to include such “research” until months after the study.

Adam Kramer, a data scientist for Facebook, ran the “emotion manipulation” study on 689,003 Facebook users to test whether or not emotions were contagious on the social media platform over the course of a week in January 2012.

Kramer and two Cornell University and University of California co-researchers subsequently released their findings, which show how they were able to successfully alter users’ moods positively or negatively by curating the content in their News Feeds to highlight uplifting or depressing content.

“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” Kramer said over the weekend. “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.”

While there’s been no shortage of disagreement over Facebook’s ethics in conducting the experiment without prior notice to users, it’s universally understood the company has legal permission to do so as a result of the Data Use Policy granting the company “permission” to use information for “internal operations” including “research.”  All users must accept the agreement before signing up for an account.

Unfortunately for Facebook, at the time the experiment was conducted the company’s policy said nothing about research — that bit was added in four months later following a wrist slap from the Federal Trade Commission for “unfair and deceptive” user privacy practices, according to Forbes.

Using information “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement” wasn’t included until May 2012, which the company itself highlighted in a comparison against the prior September 2011 version.

The Wall Street Journal additionally pointed out the study’s lack of an age filter, which may have included users under the age of 18.

“When someone signs up for Facebook, we’ve always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction. Companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether or not their privacy policy uses the word ‘research’ or not.”

“This isn’t A/B testing,” World Privacy Forum’s Pam Dixon said about practice of showing users multiple versions of the same thing to determine product effectiveness. “They didn’t just want to change users’ behaviors, they wanted to change their moods.”

Follow Giuseppe on Twitter and Facebook.

Tags : facebook
Giuseppe Macri