Facebook sorry for secretly treating its users like lab rats

Jul 01, 2014, 07:22 IST | Agencies

The test saw the networking site ‘manipulate’ news feeds to control which emotional expressions the users were exposed to

Facebook has apologised for carrying out secret mood experiments on its users. The social network and two US institutes - Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco - were involved in the study.were involved in a study to establish the effects of being exposed to positive and negative status updates in 2012.

Breaching the line: The manipulative antics have evoked alot of fury among Facebook users across the world. Pic/Thinkstock

The research involved filling Facebook members’ News Feeds with a collection of either positive or negative updates from their friends to determine whether this affects the tone of their own posts. Users selected for the experiment were not informed of their participation, but Facebook insists the trials were permitted under its terms and conditions.

However, the paper’s co-author Adam Kramer has now issued an apology for any anxiety the study may have caused.
“I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” he said. “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,” he said. “At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.”

Labour MP Jim Sheridan has expressed opposition to the study, and calling for an investigation into its practices. “They are manipulating material from people’s personal lives and I am worried about the ability of Facebook and others to manipulate people’s thoughts in politics or other areas. “If people are being thought-controlled in this kind of way there needs to be protection and they at least need to know about it.”

When signing up on Facebook, the terms of use state that a person’s information may be used “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, and research.”

The mood experiment

Facebook conducted the experiment on 689,000 users to see if their mood changes depending on the type of statuses they read. The experiment lasted for a week in 2012 on the users’ News Feeds. Participants could still see all updates when accessing a friend’s profile, and researchers did not look into private messages.

The social networking website split the group, with one half shown only positive statuses and the other half only negative statuses. The study found that users who had fewer negative stories in their news feed were less likely to write a negative post, and those with positive posts began typing positive statuses.

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