The scientific journal that published a controversial Facebook experiment on mood manipulation said on Thursday it was concerned that the company did not follow scientific ethics and principles of informed consent.
While it stopped short of retracting the study, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said it typically publishes experiments that have allowed subjects to opt out of research.
U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will investigate whether the social network broke data protection laws to conduct the psychological experiment.
“The company purposefully messed with people’s minds,” the complaint said.
It said that Facebook’s manipulation of the news feeds of Facebook users to elicit positive and negative emotional responses also failed to follow standard ethical protocols for human subject research.
Earlier, in 2012, Facebook and Cornell University conducted the experiment on nearly 689,000 randomly selected users to determine their mood swings over positive or negative feeds. However, it is alleged that Facebook conducted the experiment without any explicit consent from the users.
Furor over the experiment broke out soon after its results were published in the March issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The experiment concluded that users who were shown negative content were more likely to produce negative posts. On the other hand, users in the positive group were more likely to create more upbeat posts.
Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer tells that the research was intended to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. Kramer said Facebook also wanted to know about user’s reactions to negative content.
“We were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook,” Kramer told.
The Information Commissioner’s Office said it was probing the experiment and planned to ask Facebook questions after widespread outrage when it was revealed at the weekend. The regulator said it would also be in contact with the Irish data protection body because Facebook has its European headquarters in Dublin.
A spokesperson for the ICO said it was too early to tell exactly what part of the law Facebook may have infringed. The regulator looks at how much personal data are used and whether users have given their consent.
Facebook won’t be helped by the fact that the company didn’t alter its terms of service to disclose to users that their posts would be used for research until four months after the experiment took place.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg need not lie awake stressing over the outcome of any probe, however. The ICO only has the power to levy a fine of up to £500,000 ($857,000), which is pocket change in terms of the $3 billion that the social network holds on its balance sheet.
An FTC spokesman declined to comment on the complaint.
The privacy group, which joined other groups in complaints in 2009 and 2010 that led to Facebook’s 20-year agreement with the FTC on privacy, said that the huge social network did not get users’ permission to conduct the study and failed to notify participants that their data would be disclosed to researchers.
The complaint came a day after British authorities announced an investigation over the Facebook experiment.
Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg apologized for communicating “terribly” about the research and maintained that “we take privacy at Facebook really seriously.”
The social network clandestinely altered the emotional content of feeds of nearly 700,000 users, giving some sadder news and others happier news in the 2012 study aimed at better understanding ‘emotional contagion’.
We believe that the probe will not have any significant impact on Facebook’s share price in the near term. Domestic regulator, The Federal Trade Commission, has not shown any interest in the uproar, much to the relief of the company. Moreover, such probes take a long time to complete. Hence, a negative outcome may not have any significant impact on user activity at the end.
However, the whole issue certainly reflects the lack of strict regulation for social media companies that collect and manage huge user database. Incidents such as these are bound to adversely impact the popularity and credibility of the social media platform.