Facebook 'emotional contagion' study prompts official complaint from US privacy groups

Anger continues to spread as COO Sheryl Sandberg fails to apologise for study

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The Independent Tech

Digital rights groups in America have called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Facebook after it “purposefully messed with people’s minds” in a “secretive and non-consensual […] psychological experiment”.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint against the social network on Thursday, alleging that the study had violated the terms of Facebook’s 20-year agreement with the FTC to protect users’ privacy.

The actions of EPIC follow news that the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has launched an inquiry into the “emotional contagion” study that changed the emotional content of users’ News Feeds to examine how positive and negative feelings spread through the site.

The continuing furore over the researcg has forced Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to ‘express regret’ about how the study was communicated to the public – but not to apologize for conducting it in the first place.

“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated,” Sandberg told the Wall Street Journal.  “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”

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Sheryl Sandberg: sorry we're not sorry.

The disclosure of the study has led academics and lawyers to express concern that the company might be able to manipulate its users for purpose other than ‘research’.

Others, however, have suggested that the limited impact of the study (it produced “an average of one fewer emotional word, per thousand words, over the following week”) and the fact that Facebook’s News Feed is always being altered to test reactions mean that the public reaction is overblown.

In either case, Facebook is being consistently forced onto the back foot by the matter. It was also accused this week of accepting funding from the US military to carry out the study after it emerged that one of the key academics, Professor Hancock has previously been funded by the Minerva Initiative – a military research body that models large amounts of data to predict civil unrest.

Speaking to the Guardian, the University of Cornell - where the study was undertaken - confirmed that the professor did not receive military funding for the research. Facebook, it seems, will be busy putting out fires over this for some time to come.

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