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Facebook apologises for secret psychological user experiments

Facebook has apologised to its users after a secret psychological experiment has sparked outrage in the online community.

The social media giant admitted it had manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users without their knowledge as part of a psychology experiment.

The experiment was carried out in partnership with two American universities, Cornell University and the University of California, and controlled the emotional expressions selected users were exposed to.

It was used to gauge if “exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours”.

So one half of those tested were subjected to all negative stories on their news feeds, while the other half were presented with only happy, positive posts. Facebook then monitored whether that affected what they themselves posted.

The online community rightly exploded with criticism, with one technology analyst, Lauren Weinstein saying “Facebook secretly experiments on users to try and make them sad. What could go wrong?”

Facbook has said there was “no unnecessary collection of people’s data”, before adding that “none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account.”

However, it did not deny that it had been responsible for the manipulation of emotions.

“I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” said Facebook’s Adam Kramer, who co-authored the research’s report.

The experiment was carried out on 689,000 Facebook users in 2012 over a period of a week. The outcome was that those who had fewer negative stories in their news feed were less likely to write their own negative posts and vice versa.

Labour MP Jim Sheridan, speaking to The Guardian, said that there should be legislation against this kind of secret emotional manipulation.

“They are manipulating material from people’s personal lives and I am worried about the ability of Facebook and others to manipulate people’s thoughts in politics or other areas,” said Sheridan. “If people are being thought-controlled in this kind of way there needs to be protection and they at least need to know about it.”

However, others include Katherine Sledge Moore, a psychology professor at Elmhurst College in Illinois said this kind of study is fairly routine.

“Based on what Facebook does with their newsfeed all of the time and based on what we’ve agreed to do by joining Facebook, this study really isn’t that out of the ordinary,” said Sledge Moore. “The results are not even that alarming or exciting.”

How do you feel about Facebook performing these kind of experiments? Did you realise you were subject to these just by accepting Facebook’s privacy policies?

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