Posted Jul. 3, 2014 at 7:15 a.m.

Facebook's COO apologizes for psychological experiment

Published: 2014-07-03 07:15:00
Updated: 2014-07-03 07:15:00


A top official at Facebook apologized on Wednesday for a psychological experiment on its users, but the U.K. government already is moving to investigate what happened. 

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, told television network NDTV in India that "we clearly communicated really badly about this and that we really regret."

Later she added: "Facebook has apologized and certainly we never want to do anything that upsets users."

British data protection authorities are investigating revelations that Facebook conducted a psychological experiment on its users.



The Information Commissioner's Office said in a statement Wednesday that it wants to learn more about the circumstances of the experiment carried out by two U.S. universities and the social network. The researchers manipulated the news feeds of about 700,000 randomly selected users to study the impact of "emotional contagion," or how emotional states are transferred to others.

Sandberg's words of contrition sounded hollow to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy-rights group. He points to Facebook job openings looking for researchers specializing in data mining and analysis as evidence that the company still has every intention of digging deeper into its users' psyches and preferences.

"They are engaged in secret surveillance of its users to figure out how to make more money for their advertisers," Chester said.

Whatever Facebook has been doing has been paying off for the company and its shareholders. Facebook's revenue last year rose 55 percent to $7.9 billion and its stock has nearly tripled in value during the past year.

The concern over Facebook's experiment comes amid interest in Europe about beefing up data-protection rules. The European Court of Justice last month ruled that Google must respond to users' requests seeking to remove links to personal information.

Suzy Moat, a Warwick Business School assistant professor of behavioral science, said businesses regularly do studies on how to influence behavior. She cited the example of Facebook and Amazon experimenting with showing different groups of people slightly different versions of their websites to see if one is better than another at getting customers to buy products.

"On the other hand, it's extremely understandable that many people are upset that their behavior may have been manipulated for purely scientific purposes without their consent," Moat said. "In particular, Facebook's user base is so wide that everyone wonders if they were in the experiment."

“This highlights a need for scientists to think back to how experiments in the social sciences have traditionally been run, and consider how open and transparent ethics procedures can be redesigned to take new technology such as Facebook into account," she added. "We also need to look at existing successful online experiments, such as Mappiness, which have recruited extremely large numbers of informed participants, simply by offering sufficient benefits for participating - just like a business does.”

 

 

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