Facebook says sorry (and this news is real)

Guardian (UK) |

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Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, has apologised for the company's conducting secret psychological tests on nearly 700,000 users in 2012, which prompted outrage when they were revealed at the weekend. The aim of the study, which was run over a single week in 2012 and hid "a small percentage" of emotional words from news feeds, was to see whether positive or negative words in messages would lead to positive or negative content in status updates. The study was revealed only when it was published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. "This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated," Sandberg said while in New Delhi. "And for that communication we apologise. We never meant to upset you." Sandberg said Facebook took privacy and security "really seriously because that is something that allows people to share" opinions and emotions. The statement by Sandberg, deputy to chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is a marked climbdown from the company's insistence on Tuesday that the experiment was covered by its terms of service. Facebook added a "research" policy to its terms and conditions but only four months after the experiment took place. A Facebook spokeswoman told the Guardian on Tuesday: "When someone signs up for Facebook, we've always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer. To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction." The company faces an inquiry from the UK's data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) into the secret tests, while the publishers of the paper have said they will investigate whether an ethics breach took place. Psychological tests on human subjects have to have "informed consent" from participants - but independent researchers and Facebook have disagreed on whether its terms of service implicitly cover such use. The company's researchers decided after tweaking the content of people's "news feeds" that there was "emotional contagion" across the social network, by which people who saw one emotion expressed would then express similar emotions. Susan Fiske, the Princeton academic who edited the study, said she was concerned. "People are supposed to be told they are going to be participants in research and then agree to it and have the option not to agree without penalty." Facebook's first public comment on the experiments came as it tried to woo Indian advertisers as part of efforts to tailor adverts to users outside the US. Sandberg was meeting entrepreneurs and businesswomen as part of her "Lean In" campaign to encourage more women into business. ICO is currently looking into the experiment carried out by Facebook in conjunction with academics from Cornell and the University of California on 689,000 users, but said it was too early to tell what part of the law Facebook might have infringed. Ireland's data protection commissioner has also been contacted as the social network's headquarters are in Dublin. In the study, Facebook filtered users' news feeds - the flow of comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their network. One test reduced users' exposure to friends' "positive emotional content", resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced "negative emotional content" and the opposite happened. Lawyers, internet activists and politicians said over the weekend described the mass experiment in emotional manipulation variously as "scandalous", "spooky" and "disturbing". On Sunday, Jim Sheridan, a member of the Commons media select committee called for a parliamentary investigation. Captions: Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg said the covert testing was 'poorly communicated' Photograph: Money Sharma/EPA

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