Lawmaker Asks FTC To Investigate Facebook Psych Experiment

Facebook's now-infamous social experiment on 700,000 unsuspecting users “invites questions” about whether this type of research should be regulated, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) says in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission.

Warner is urging the FTC to investigate the “potential ramifications” of the social networking service's research. He expresses a number of  concerns, including whether Facebook “responsibly assessed the risks and benefits of conducting this behavioral experiment.”

His letter is only the most recent fallout for Facebook, which found itself in the center of a controversy after news broke about its “mood contagion” study. For the initiative, the company tinkered with the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users in order to test whether their moods were influenced by friends' posts. Specifically, Facebook manipulated users' news feeds to deliberately filter out some positive or negative posts. Researchers then observed people's reactions and concluded that mood was contagious: People shown more negative posts posted more negative items, while those shown more positive material posted in a more upbeat tone.

The study was published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Warner isn't the only one asking the FTC to get involved. Last week, the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center asked the agency to investigate the social networking company's experiment. EPIC says that Facebook users “could not reasonably have guessed that use of their Facebook account might subject them to behavioral testing.”

Facebook's data use policy currently states that the company can draw on information about users for a broad array of purposes, including “research.” But in January of 2012, when Facebook ran its test, the company's policy reportedly didn't list “research” as one of the permissible uses of data.

Warner is asking the FTC to answer a host of questions about the study, including whether the agency thinks there's a difference “between passively observing user data versus actively manipulating it.

The lawmaker also is asking the FTC for its opinion about whether companies should seek consumers' explicit opt-in consent before running these types of studies.

“I am concerned that the exponential growth in the universe of social media consumers could place us on a slippery slope,” he writes. “Future studies like this, without proper oversight or appropriate review, could have a significant impact upon a large number of consumers.”

Tags: facebook, privacy
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1 comment about "Lawmaker Asks FTC To Investigate Facebook Psych Experiment".
  1. David Carlick from Carlick , July 10, 2014 at 6 p.m.
    Well, Facebook feeds are, as I understand them, all employing some 'tinkering' to filter what goes in and what does not. Else your feed would be spammed by the companies you 'like.' So far, so good. I do believe this test by Facebook should be (and probably is) one of hundreds, and is an important measure of what works and does not work in social media, for the social good. If people display happier behavior when exposed to happier feed bits, how cool is that? Facebook's job is to know what makes its customers (people, not advertisers, although they are customers too) happy; that is their reason for existing and their defensive bastion. I would think Facebook does not need to do simple A/B splits; they run many variations of the content feed algorithm and can do regression analysis to determine what causes create what effects. I think this is the most wonderful thing imaginable. And, while we're at it, why not run algorithms that create lookalikes for people who turn out to be bad guys?