UK investigating Facebook over psych experiment

LONDON (AP) — British data protection authorities are
investigating revelations that Facebook conducted a psychological
experiment on its users.
The Information Commissioner’s Office
said Wednesday that it wants to learn more about the circumstances of
the experiment carried out by two U.S. universities and the social
network.
The commissioner’s office is working with authorities in
Ireland, where Facebook has headquarters for its European operations.
French authorities are also reviewing the matter.
The researchers
manipulated the news feeds of about 700,000 randomly selected users to
study the impact of "emotional contagion," or how emotional states are
transferred to others. The researchers said the evidence showed that
emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people and
"in the complete absence of nonverbal cues."
Facebook acknowledged that the research was done for a single week in 2012.
The
survey provoked an outcry on social media sites and sparked essays in
media outlets including The New York Times and The Atlantic about the
ethics of manipulating users’ feeds without their consent.
Facebook’s
chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told television network NDTV
in India that "we clearly communicated really badly about this and that
we really regret." Later she added: "Facebook has apologized and
certainly we never want to do anything that upsets users."
Facebook’s
data use policy says the company can use user information for "internal
operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research
and service improvement."
The concern over the experiment comes
amid interest in Europe about beefing up data protection rules. The
European Court of Justice last month ruled that Google must respond to
users’ requests seeking to remove links to personal information.
Suzy
Moat, a Warwick Business School assistant professor of behavioral
science, said businesses regularly do studies on how to influence
behavior. She cited the example of Facebook and Amazon experimenting
with showing different groups of people slightly different versions of
their websites to see if one is better than another at getting customers
to buy products.
"On the other hand, it’s extremely
understandable that many people are upset that their behavior may have
been manipulated for purely scientific purposes without their consent,"
Moat said. "In particular, Facebook’s user base is so wide that everyone
wonders if they were in the experiment."
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Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.