July 1, 2014
Unless you’ve spent the last couple of days in a Faraday pouch under a rock, you’ve heard about Facebook’s controversial ‘emotion manipulation’ study. Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer ran an experiment on 689,003 Facebook users two and a half years ago to find out whether emotions were contagious on the social network. It lasted for a week in January 2012. It came to light recently when he and his two co-researchers from Cornell University and University of California-SF published their study describing how users’ moods changed when Facebook curated the content of their News Feeds to highlight the good, happy stuff (for the lucky group) vs. the negative, depressing stuff (for the unlucky and hopefully-not-clinically-depressed group).
The idea of Facebook manipulating users’ emotions for science — without telling them or explicitly asking them first — rubbed many the wrong way. Critics said Facebook should get “informed consent” for a study like this — asking people if they’re okay being in a study and then telling them what was being studied afterwards. Defenders said, “Hey, the Newsfeed gets manipulated all the time. What’s the big deal?” Critics and defenders alike pointed out that Facebook’s “permission” came from its Data Use Policy which among its thousands of words informs people that their information might be used for “internal operations,” including “research.” However, we were all relying on what Facebook’s data policy says now. In January 2012, the policy did not say anything about users potentially being guinea pigs made to have a crappy day for science, nor that “research” is something that might happen on the platform.
Four months after this study happened, in May 2012, Facebook made changesto its data use policy, and that’s when it introduced this line about how it might use your information: “For internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” Facebook helpfully posted a “red-line” version of the new policy, contrasting it with the prior version from September 2011 — which did not mention anything about user information being used in “research.” Here is the relevant part:
Facebook made this change in May 2012, four months after it ran its emotion manipulation study.
Let’s be candid: no one actually reads these things anyway. But they are important for companies be able to point to clauses in their ToS to (legally) defend how they treat their users. Some critics don’t think that throwing the word “research” into a many-thousands-word-long data use policy is adequate for performing psychological experiments on users, but now it seems that Facebook hadn’t even done that.
This article was posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 at 5:06 am