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Facebook research scandal continues unabated

Outrage continues to grow at the Facebook report which showed how the social network giant performed psychological experiments on 689,000 of its unwitting users in 2012, manipulating their emotions by curating what they saw in their news feed,

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

Seemingly baffled at peoples’ objection to them manipulating users’ emotions as part of an experiment, Facebook defended itself mainly on the grounds that users had provided ‘informed consent’ when they agreed to its ToS,which included the phrase ‘research’.

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Most observers have expressed scorn at the notion that agreeing to a document years ago, that almost no one bothers to read, that changes its terms with alarming regularity, and which buried the short phrase ‘research’ in 9,045 words of legalese, can in any way really be regarded as ‘informed consent.’

It turns out however, that the situation is even worse than that. According to Forbes, the term ‘research’ was not included in the ToS at the time of study, but was added in May 2012 – four months after the study had finished.

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 ‘Facebook made this change in May 2012, four months after it ran its emotion manipulation study’. Screenshot courtesy of Forbes

Forbes also notes that the study occurred around the same time that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) accused Facebook of ‘unfair and deceptive’ practices regarding users’ privacy (in November 2011). Part of the settlement for this complaint involved ‘a consent decree that outlined practices Facebook needed to live up to’, the details of which were finalized in August 2012. In other words, the entire research incident occurred during this period, and Facebook should have been very aware that it needed to get explicit consent before playing fast and loose with its user’s data.

In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is clearly not happy with Facebook, and has announced that it will be investigating its study on the impact of ‘emotional contagion’.

A spokesperson for the ICO said it was too early to tell exactly what part of the law Facebook may have infringed. The regulator looks at how much personal data are used and whether users have given their consent. It has the power to force organisations to change their policies and levy fines of up to £500,000’, reports the Financial Times.


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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