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One of Facebook's team members that helped to run secret psychological experiments on some of its users has now written a note explaining the motivations behind their efforts, adding an apology for how its scientific paper on the research describe their efforts.

In a post on his own Facebook page, the paper's co-author Adam Kramer stated the company wanted to run these tests because they care about the emotional impact their network has on its users. The company decided to run the experiment in January 2012 on over 600,000 users without their knowledge. Facebook changed those users' news feeds to highlight either positive or negative posts from their friends.

The results of that experiment were published earlier in June in Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences but came to light this weekend. Some Facebook users have since expressed concerns about how the company conducted these efforts. In his post on Sunday, Kramer wrote:

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. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn't clearly state our motivations in the paper.

Ultimately, the goal of their efforts in 2012 was to make Facebook a better service for users, according to Kramer, and they created their experiment without any intention to upset anyone. He added:

I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.

Kramer hinted that Facebook might change how it conducts this type of research in the future, stating they are "working on improving our internal review practices." How do you feel about Kramer's explanation on these secret experiments that were conducted without the awareness of some Facebook users?

Source: Adam D. I. Kramer on Facebook via Engadget

 

Reader comments

Facebook tries to explain motives for secret user experiments

69 Comments

I dont feel their experiment put anyone in danger. What I wonder is if they could use the data to make people feel positive or good even if the world is crumbling down around them. Sorry if this sounds conspiracy driven.

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A legitimate question to be asked. Facebook should do research on the effects their little experiment left on their users, and if it had any real-world consequences.

It had one real-world consequence. I deleted my account. FB was already getting too invasive with recording audio without user action. At least Google's implementation can be disabled. FB audio recording can't be disabled unless you are rooted and use App Ops. Supposedly, FB will only record when the app is open. The problem is that the app always runs in the background. Any paranoia aside, I deleted my account because I just hate what FB has become. It used be a place for college friends to keep in touch but it's grown into a monster that forbids any customization/changes. It's time to go.

Do you have a source that Facebook records audio anytime the app is running? I'm pretty active in the tech and mobile community and I've never heard of any such thing.

Or if they wanted to do these tests do it with a University that does psychological experiments and has experience doing them with control settings as well and with Volunteers instead of customers to do guinea pig experiments on.

agreed, but if this experiment cause even 1 suicide- then they are extremely at fault.

what they should have done- like EVERY OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANY- is add a box when you log in- hey we're launching a new experiment- do you want to be part? yes? no?

that simple.

Come one, someone that killed themselves due to their FB friend's positive trends! I say good bye to them..

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Then you're an idiot. Sure, it's a stupid reason. But most suicides are for reasons that look stupid from a third person perspective. People, especially young teens, often make incredibly stupid choices.

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What if Firestone sent people out to underinflate the tires of 100,000 minivans. What if the knowledge gained was used to educate people on the importance of properly inflating their tires?

Would you be upset with Firestone if you found out you were hauling your babies around in an affected minivan?
Would you rather have been able to consent? (IANAL, but I'm not sure their little consent policy in the EULA is enough for what Facebook did.)

While I don't expressly agree with what Facebook did, I think the comparison of another company going around making cars "hauling babies" unsafe is a bit disingenuous.

First of all, the results are obvious to anyone who hangs out in forums; negativity begets negativity.
Second, I don't think it's setting a good precedent if companies are allowed to get away with this behavior. Research should be handled appropriately. This crosses the line of collecting data on users and making adjustments to an application based on that data. The difference is active vs passive; they actively manipulated users and that's just wrong without consent.

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People agreed to this when they signed up for Facebook. It's in the terms & conditions that they may do this without notifying the people that are a part of the experiment.

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So I signed up for Thefacebook back in 2004 and have yet to have to agree to any new terms and conditions. Did they have this stipulation back then? I don't use facebook on my phone so I haven't agreed to anything since 2004.

You agreed to them being allowed to change the terms whenever they feel like. So yeah, you did sign up for it. At any rate, did you even read them? Would it have made a difference?

I hate Facebook more than most people, but people are over reacting to this. By now everyone should know they sign away all but their souls (and sometimes that too) if they use social media, especially fb.

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This apology was just a smoke screen to fend off some of the negativity Facebook had gotten this weekend. They are just trying to save their asses from people leaving. This is why I don't use Facebook.

Secondly the study was stupid to begin with. Anyone with a pea sized brain could have figured that information out. Just more stupid practices from a stupid company.

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Anyone can figure out that negative posts affect them, and positive posts affect them.

My god person.. Don't do that.

I think it is really funny a company this large actually thought it would be a good idea to do something like this. I suppose it isn't like they are going to get in trouble for it really. They may take a hit in publicity but people are so addicted it may not really matter. There certainly are no laws they broke or fines they face since it is such a gray area there is no way anything would stick, especially in the US where big business rules. Any legal fees they face are probably such a part of doing business.

I cannot speak for the US, but here in Canada, any research before on human subjects is regulated by the Federal Ethical Board of Canada. There are strict rules to follow and any violations can result in hefty fines.

How is this Facebook's fault. I'm no supported for fb, but i see everyone's to quick to jump on the complaint wagon. You'll all signed up on fb and all of us including me conveniently ignored the T&C. It's there in black and white.

So its in the TOS that they can manipulate your feeds for social experiments?

Bullshit.

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I mostly refer you to my response to your comment on my below post.

But no, you don't. That would bias the data and break the scientific method. Ever heard of a double blind study? Google it.

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I do know what double blind is. But from a research/medical perspective putting the word "research" in their ToS is not informed consent. Maybe you should Google it.

And while you're at it look up the laws governing the rights of human test subjects.

As I understand it, the way academic psychologists do it now, is to inform the group that there is an experiment for x, when they are really testing for y.

The group remains in the dark while knowing full well that they are engaged in an experiment. Which seems reasonable to me.

They are always manipulating everyone's feeds for one reason or another. No one cared before, and no one will care in a few weeks.

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Instead of crying, STOP USING IT! I agree, it was an asshole move from Facebook but don't be a little bitch and walk the fuck away. Don't ask for this shit to be regulated by the fuckin government.

Then how about letting fucking facebook Fuck with your emotions instead. Would that be better?

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On one hand, I agree with you. If you're that dissatisfied with a product/service, stop using it.

On the other hand, people have every right to complain about the products and services they use. That sort of feedback is important.

Indeed! Free services are not free. I am giving them the currency of my data. They should respect that that is a legitimate currency and give me a quality product.

Really? When you go to the hospital and sign a consent form for them to treat you, do you think that includes your consent for them to use you as a guinea pig in medical experimentation? This is my great concern for this generation; most seem willing to give up all their privacy in exchange for something free. The sad part is, so many, including FaceBook see nothing wrong with this. An amoral generation.

In any serious research settings, conducting experiments on human subjects without their expressed, written consent is either unethical, illegal or both. What Facebook did is totally unacceptable and should be followed through by proper authorities.

Facebook have every right to do this, legally speaking at least. If this is the worst thing it does, we're getting off easy. Don't like it? Delete your profile. That's all you can do.

It's another case of Facebook users thinking they're the consumer, where they're actually the product.

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Perfectly written post... I'm so sick of hearing people complain about the free services they get, but then finding out they are using your data in one way shape or form... Nothing is really free, and if you don't like companies like Google or Facebook, close your account and stay off of the internet.

"Facebook have every right to do this, legally speaking at least."

No they don't. An experiment like this requires informed consent. They're ToS is not informed consent. All participant are also required to be debriefed at the conclusion, that never happened.

I'm sorry, but you're wrong. Their T&Cs very much constitute informed consent in that within them they inform you of their intentions, and by agreeing you give your consent. Informed consent is literally the point of the T&Cs. I'm not a lawyer and I would guess you aren't either, but I assure you Facebook has a very large team of them hammering these things out.

Besides, all Facebook actually did is shape users news feeds. Which is well within their remit.

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So where in their ToS does it say that they have the right to perform psychological experiments on their users. if there ToS were to have that it would have to say exactly (but not everything, that would ruin the experiment) what they were going to do.

You want me to read their entire T&Cs just to give you paragraph numbers to prove my point? Sorry, I don't care that much! If you do, read it yourself. It comes under the remit of "Facebook may collect data about users and their usage habits." And "we may use your data to improve our services." Et al.

Like I said, all they actually did was shape users feeds. If you're really that sure they violated their T&Cs, start a class action lawsuit.

Lemme know how it goes.

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I can assure you, they do not have an actual right to do such a thing without trained individuals and professionals.

You have no idea what your saying. What on earth makes you think they had a right to do this? Do you even understand the work "right" in this context? Do you think that little TOS contract is enough?

The value in this study in no way lies in the fact that people's activity tends toward positivity when exposed to a more positive news feed. Large scale data is extremely valuable to companies like Google and Facebook. 600,000 is a lot of people, and actually asking for permission directly would most definitely lead to less reliable results. Legally, they did nothing wrong, and the most likely result of all this fuss will be a checkbox hidden in the settings, checked by default.
Further, with this study, facebook likely found a correlation between that positive news feed and increased browsing time, and more importantly, ad time. I don't expect them to release that information, but facebook may have already modified their algorithms to increase (or, if the data calls for it, decrease) positivity in people's news feed, since they stand to gain.

Let's just set aside the whole "does their ToS allow this" argument and focus on the research itself. The way they went about this is completely unethical. they basically violated the entire law governing the rights of human test subjects, namely informed consent (completely different than consent). Also all participant are required to be debriefed at the conclusion, that never happened.

How this was even approved by an IBS is beyond me (if it even was).

FaceBook....lol. I use it from time to time, but it in no way impacts my real life. Same with G+. Actually I use G+ as part of my research of new products (mobile devices, apps etc), but FB is really just a social toy I only picked up to be able to see what my wife is up to. Not that I'm really concerned, but she does spend a lot of time on there and I'll probably never understand why. I'm just not social enough to care what people are doing and I hate drama.

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Instead of crying, STOP USING IT! I agree, it was an asshole move from Facebook but don't be a little bitch and walk the fuck away. Don't ask for this shit to be regulated by the fuckin government..

Does this explain why my news feed is always backwards? I get the most random posts from the most random dates sometimes... I ignore it because I don't really care. Also, I don't actually care about my friend's lives or anything... I'm bold and I have to say that they don't affect me. I don't care if they went to Paris or made a sandwich. I just go on Facebook to send private messages and chat with family from across the boarder. Although, I may affect people negatively.. The sarcasm in my posts can be quite mean all of the time. Haha

Some of these comments are amusing. Companies have been doing this kind of "science" long before Facebook, or the internet, existed. The real issue here is Facebook's hubris in calling it an "experiment." It's just market research, and it happens every day all over the world.

From prisons experimenting with paint colors, to see if pink walls keep inmates calmer than green ones, to retail outlets playing different kinds of background music or adding scents in different stores to see how that influences your shopping behavior, to magazine publishers printing editions with different cover art to see what sells better, to cereal manufacturers "experimenting" with how "eye contact" with the figure on the package impacts sales*, these "experiments" are commonplace. And no one asks for your permission when you walk into the store.

* Yes, Notice that many cereals marketed towards children have characters that look straight out, at shopping cart and children's eye height, while products aimed at adults have people that look up, where an adults eyes are going to be.

"The Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, a/k/a the Common Rule, requires that informed consent include:

(1) A statement that the study involves research, an explanation of the purposes of the research and the expected duration of the subject’s participation, a description of the procedures to be followed, and identification of any procedures which are experimental;

(2) A description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject; …

(7) An explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects’ rights, and whom to contact in the event of a research-related injury to the subject;

(8) A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled."

Does FaceBook's ToS include _ANY_ of these conditions?

They don't need to know anything about anyone, especially emotional status. They just need to run the fucking site making sure our stays up and running. That's it. Period.

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