Facebook infuriated a few folks with news it conducted a secret experiment that assessed the emotional effects of manipulating peoples’ news feeds. For one week in January 2012, the online social network deliberately altered the amount of positive or negative content that appeared in 689,003 user feeds.
The fact users weren’t asked to participate in a study, or told they were test subjects, is most alarming.
The published study points to Facebook’s Data Use Policy, “to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.” Legality aside, there’s still the matter of ethics – or lack thereof – that researchers applied.
Adam Kramer of Facebook’s Core Data Science Team co-authored the study. Kramer attempted an explanation on Facebook. This sentence likely fanned the flames:
“Nobody’s posts were ‘hidden,’ they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed.”
To quote the brilliant Biff Tannen: “Think McFly! Think.”
Here are four more Facebook stories found on the beat:
Do you think this controversy is a non-story? After all, Facebook’s Data Use Policy lists six ways users’ data may be used, including:
“For internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”
However, as Forbes reported (and showed with a screenshot), Facebook’s policy was updated to include that line four months after the study took place:
“In January 2012, the policy did not say anything about users potentially being guinea pigs … nor that ‘research’ is something that might happen on the platform.”
Also disturbing, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook said users younger than 18 may have been among the study’s unknowing subjects.
The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is investigating whether Facebook violated data protection laws in the name of research.
According to Reuters:
“The Commissioner’s Office monitors how personal data is used and has the power to force organizations to change their policies and can levy fines up to 500,000 pounds ($839,500).”
Granted, if forced to pay the maximum penalty, Facebook could withdraw the amount from petty cash. The company reported $2.5 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2014. A six-figure fine is pocket change for CEO Mark Zuckerberg, among the world’s wealthiest people.
But, as Mashable noted, “any type of monetary fine would be symbolic.”
Did you know?
News Feed manipulation is nothing new. For some time, Facebook has shown its users a fraction of all possible stories using an algorithm. Facebook executive Brian Boland explained in this post:
“Of the 1,500+ stories a person might see whenever they log onto Facebook, News Feed displays approximately 300. To choose which stories to show, News Feed ranks each possible story (from more to less important) by looking at thousands of factors relative to each person.”
Many “factors” that skew users’ feeds are a mystery to the public. But Yahoo Tech noted a few.
At the end of the day
What will come of Facebook’s mega-gaffe? Most likely, nothing.
According to the International Business Times:
“Facebook is a social utility; it’s where your friends and co-workers are, and for most people, the switching costs are just too high.
“As Facebook becomes less loved – if not less used – the company has responded by buying up networks that truly are loved (for now), like Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook remains the company’s core social utility, but increasingly it’s a collection of social technologies targeted at different needs and demographics.”
Still, if you want to be Facebook-free, Mashable offered an informative read. Know the difference between deactivating and deleting an account.
And understand, as the story outlines, the latter takes some effort.