Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has offered an apology for what she characterised as poor communication about a controversial experiment that tested users’ emotional reactions, although she did not concede any problems with the study itself.
“This was part of ongoing research (that) companies do to test different products, and that was what it was. It was poorly communicated,” said Sandberg, according to The Wall Street Journal, which said the social network’s chief operating officer spoke with business executives and entrepreneurs in New Delhi, India.
“And for that communication we apologise,” she added. “We never meant to upset you.”
Sandberg is the first senior Facebook executive to address a controversy that erupted after researchers reported they tested the emotional reactions of nearly 700,000 Facebook users for one week - without their knowledge - by reducing the number of positive or negative updates from friends that appeared in their news feeds.
Critics say the study manipulated users’ emotions without getting “informed consent” or meeting other ethical standards that apply to academic or government research involving human subjects.
A Facebook researcher announced the study earlier this month in a scientific journal article that said their findings could have implications for public health. But since then, Facebook has argued the study was no different from other tests that online companies conduct to gauge users’ reactions to different messages or advertising.
The difference could be significant, legal experts say, because research to develop proprietary products or services isn’t subject to the strict ethics oversight that usually applies to published research aimed at advancing scientific knowledge.
Sandberg’s statements did not mollify some of the study’s outspoken critics.
“If so many people are uncomfortable, it is better to start listening, rather than issue weak, ‘We regret you are upset’-type statements,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information, said in an email interview with the San Jose Mercury News.
The Information Commissioner's Office said that it wants to learn more about the circumstances of the experiment carried out by two US 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 apologised 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour 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."