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Facebook's emotion manipulation study faces added scrutiny

It appears the social network's Data Use Policy has changed since the criticized study was conducted. Still, the company maintains the research was done to improve services.


Facebook has been grilled over the past couple of days for apparently tampering with users' news feeds for a scientific study on emotions. Defenders of the social network have said that it can conduct these types of experiments because its Data Use Policy states it "may use the information we receive about you... for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement."

But, after some digging, Forbes has sleuthed out a copy of Facebook's Data Use Policy from when the study was done -- and, the wording is quite different.

First, let's backtrack to beginning of the controversy. In January 2012, researchers from Cornell, Facebook, and UC San Francisco conducted a study called "Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks." For their research, scientists examined 3 million Facebook posts, penned by 689,003 random users. The idea was to determine if happiness or negativity could be contagious on the social network -- they concluded emotions were indeed transmittable.

While carrying out the study, Facebook altered users' News Feeds to show either more positive or more negative posts. And, here's the rub. Unbeknownst to these users, the company toyed with their News Feeds and possibly altered their emotions.

Critics say the social network lacks transparency and it was unethical to fiddle with user data without alerting people first. While people less worried about the issue say Facebook meddles with user data all the time with its advertising and marketing testing. Whether it's ethical or not, Facebook defenders say it's still permissible because the company's Data Use Policy explicitly states it can use people's information for "research."

Well, as Forbes found, the word "research" wasn't in the social network's Data Use Policy (PDF) at the time the study was conducted. In fact, the entire clause about "internal operations" was nonexistent.

CNET spoke to a Facebook spokesperson who said that even though "research" wasn't in the Data Use Policy at that time, the idea of studying user data was. The older policy said the company could use people's data in connection with its services and features.

"We use the information we receive about you in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users," the older policy read.

Another reason Facebook says this type of research was within its bounds is because the end-goal of the study was to improve users' experience, which is stated in both the 2011 and 2012 Data Use Policies.

"When someone signs up for Facebook, we've always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer," the Facebook spokesperson told CNET. "To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction. Companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether or not their privacy policy uses the word 'research' or not."

It's unclear how this debacle will play out or if any US government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission will weigh in on the matter -- as they did over Facebook's privacy practices in 2011.