Facebook experiment conducted during online piracy protests


By Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org

Facebook is facing backlash from users and researchers over the ethics and legality of a recently revealed week-long experiment, which the company conducted in January 2012.

THUMBS DOWN: Facebook secretly manipulated the emotions of several hundred thousand users in 2012.

The company secretly manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users and found that the information posted by a user’s friends can influence that user’s mood.

The experiment took place Jan. 11-18, 2012, the week before the massive online protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, but the findings were first published June 17, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America — the official journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Adam Kremer, Facebook data scientist and the study’s lead author, posted a public apology on his Facebook page, stating that his research team did not clearly state the motivations of the study, which, he says, were to understand if friends’ negative emotions led people to avoid using Facebook.

“In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety,” said Kremer.

In addition to the ethical questions researchers are raising over how the study was conducted without users’ knowing about it, the study’s legality is in quesiton. While the company says its study was legal, not everyone agrees with the social network.

Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the blog, Boing Boing, writes, “But as legal scholar James Grimmellmann points out, there’s a federal law that prohibits universities from conducting this kind of experiment without explicit, separate consent … .” Two of the three researchers who worked on this were working for federally funded universities with institutional review boards, and the project received federal funds.”

So far, the Federal Trade Commission has been silent on the matter, but Facebook already landed in hot water once when the agency charged the company in 2011 over deceptive user privacy practices. The commission acts as the federal government’s consumer watchdog, promoting consumer protection and working to prevent monopolies.

Facebook and the FTC settled the matter in August 2012, nearly seven months after Facebook concluded its tests on unwitting users. The FTC did not immediately return an inquiry from Watchdog.org.

Contact Josh Peterson at jpeterson@watchdog.org. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson