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Facebook tries to explain motives for secret user experiments

One of Facebook's team members that helped to run secret psychological experiments on some of its users has now written a note explaining the motivations behind their efforts, adding an apology for how its scientific paper on the research describe their efforts.

In a post on his own Facebook page, the paper's co-author Adam Kramer stated the company wanted to run these tests because they care about the emotional impact their network has on its users. The company decided to run the experiment in January 2012 on over 600,000 users without their knowledge. Facebook changed those users' news feeds to highlight either positive or negative posts from their friends.

The results of that experiment were published earlier in June in Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences but came to light this weekend. Some Facebook users have since expressed concerns about how the company conducted these efforts. In his post on Sunday, Kramer wrote:

We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends' negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn't clearly state our motivations in the paper.

Ultimately, the goal of their efforts in 2012 was to make Facebook a better service for users, according to Kramer, and they created their experiment without any intention to upset anyone. He added:

I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.

Kramer hinted that Facebook might change how it conducts this type of research in the future, stating they are "working on improving our internal review practices." How do you feel about Kramer's explanation on these secret experiments that were conducted without the awareness of some Facebook users?

Source: Adam D. I. Kramer on Facebook via Engadget

109 Comments
  • Guess they'll have a problem with that...
  • I hate Zukerburg........ That Sucker does really weird stuff!
  • Dont be ignorant.... one person isnt the only one making all of the decisions there. The problem is the philosophy of the company on the whole.
  • He's still the person ultimately responsible for how his company conducts business. And as usual he'll either shrug it off or decline to provide an opinion at all to us plebs because we're unworthy of his time and consideration and don't deserve an explanation. And that's part of the problem with the corporate culture at that place - it's just as calculating and devoid of empathy as its leader. They don't view us as people, we're just numbers and assets, a bunch of ignorant lab rats.
  • Suckerburg should be hit by a iPad
    On his head
    Thrice
    By hulk
  • Or a LUMIA LOL
  • How can you say that a person you don't know lacks empathy?
  • Are you kidding? Have you seen the guy interviewed? Heard him speak? For someone who runs the most successful social network on the world the dude seems seriously socially crippled himself, one of those people that relates well to numbers and hardware but not so much to people.
  • We all need to return to Myspace, Tom wouldn't be pulling this shit that's for damn sure...
  • Hm. Friendster?
  • Tom works at Facebook, dude....
  • It's a free service with unethical decisions being made. We can all leave whenever we want.
  • That't true, but it's not about doing whatever you want because you've got money, it's about ethics
  • It's not really about ethics, it's just stupid because it undermines trust in one of the core features of their service. Imagine an instant messenger service that selectively decided not to deliver some of your messages. Facebook isn't just a hive of self-congratulatory attention whores (although there is plenty of that). A big part of Facebook's user base is normal people who use it to share bits of their life and stay in touch across long distances. What's the point if your posts may be randomly censored by the servers?
  • Facebook doesn't show all the post of your friends, that would be a sea of irrelevant information. An algorithm selects relevant information for you. The comparison with message services is non sense.
    There is nothing unethical in finding the best content for your users.
  • I left 5 years ago and don't miss it in the slightest.
  • If we knew what was happening we would have left, its called informed consent.
  • Unlikely. A few people would have screamed and complained and made statements about how evil Facebook is. Most people wouldn't even bother to comment at all. In the end pretty much everybody would then go back to posting their updates on Facebook as normal.
  • The only reason they went public with the info! Is that they did not want it to come out via a whistleblower or a journalist.
    Regardless of what the Facebook TOS state this experiment was unethical expect litigation soon
  • Did you actually read the article? It was published in a (presumably) peer-reviewed scientific journal last month.
  • No he didn't. He's just faux-raging.
  • This article has nothing to do with WP.. We don't have official app from Facebook Inc..
  • Haha true...
  • I agree with u..
  • What's actually there in IOS that fb inc just wanna properly update. What on earth is their problem why cant they provide equal experience to android and windows phone
  • Water flows downstream :P
  • 100% agreed, they are wasting time in useless task rather than developing an official app for WP.
  • They think the other way round. Developing official apps for WP is useless. Their time is better spent on research that will improve the news feed.
  • Guessing this a crosspost from one of the other platforms mn covers
  • "We don't have official app from Facebook Inc." It doesn't matter, the WP app still gets the information from Facebook, and they control what comes through your news feed.
  • Our facebook app is so crappy we don't even get proper updates on our news feed forget positive and negative..So this policy of Facebook at least doesn't affect us.We were already screwed up..lol
  • Psssttt
  • It's a time-waster. I left months ago and haven't looked back.
  • Good for you. I just use it as a Chat protokoll.. havent looked back either
  • Sadly its one of the most used sites in the world and is still growing according to recent data.
  • Me too. I mostly use FB to talk with my relatives abroad using Chat.
  • The part that no one is talking about is that fb altered what we are sharing. That means someone was reading the post and choosing what they wanted to be displayed and to who. There is something terribly wrong with that.
  • No one is reading anything. It was done by computer programs
  • Nor did they alter what was being shared. They only tweaked what you saw in your news feed.
  • "They only tweaked what you saw in your news feed." That, by definition, is altering what was being shared. Maybe they didn't change the words of the post, but chosing which posts are shared is altering what was shared.
  • Facebook does this anyway. You do not receive all messages from all groups/friends/etc. Facebook cherry picks for you. I actually have no issue with this at all because I really like psychological experiments such as this and it would be impossible to get the right effect with participants who know they are being studied in this instance.
  • They are called algorithms, stay in school.
  • I have a bachelors in psychology and a masters in counseling and I love an experiment as well but look at the big picture here. They can manipulate what they want when they want. What's to keep them from using this to sway you in politics? Or should something serious happen in the country what's to keep them from hiding it to keep us in the dark?
  • What a bullshit controversy. People are mad at a company that makes money off our social connections and targeted advertising, and we get upset over the fact the secretly conduct an experiment on is? The same company that announces a new timeline view, gets millions of complaints and then fixes it by doing the opposite of what people want? Nonsense! Facebook does what they do best... screw with people. Why are we surprised?
  • Because doing psychological/social research on people requires legal consent of those participating.
  • And that consent would have rendered this data useless is my thinking
  • Exactly, the TOS allowed this. If Facebook had given specifics about the test then it would have affected results. If you read the terms, you agreed to the test, if you didn't read the terms then you still agreed but you didn't know what you were agreeing to.
  • Which they gave in the terms of service. While there might be an ethical argument about it, from a legal standpoint they are covered.
  • Scumbags
  • Its facebook people. Yall got slapped in the face with a book.
  • Simple fix, push out a new privacy option to opt out in the future, default everyone in, bury it deep in some overly complicated email, then bury the option to opt out so deep in settings no one can find it even if they try. Problem solved everyone consents.
  • I forgot, hold big press conference saying you will never do it again and you care about peoples privacy and that you made it simple for people to opt out.
  • If u feel left out . Well don't use it. It's only a thing to share stuff on. Tell face book to come over to northern Ireland and rum experiments. They soon be shifted back to where they came from.
  • Meh, I really don't care, since I hardly use it, so go ahead Facebook! Scan my profile, take my numbers, sell me to whatever higher powers you serve... Or not, I really don't mind...
  • You don't think that they are already doing all that. Remember, with free services like Facebook YOU are the product being sold.
  • Everytime someone says this, they say it like it's some mind blowing concept.  Who gives a rip?  I get something out of it, advertisers get something out of it.  Win-win.
  • Its a free service, so they indeed have the will to do just anything. I am quite unaware why I miss out on so many posts, I don't mind. This research wouldn't have produced unbiased results unless it was a secret.
    Its a free service that's how they pay up to their employees and maintain site.
  • "We here at Facebook apologize for trying to suck your brains out via the internet for purely selfish monetary reasons. We'll be more careful next time. Meanwhile we strongly support immigration reform and amnesty with the money you have made for us by using Facebook. Yes we realize most illegal aliens...err immigrant noncitizens...don't use Facebook now...but they will, and the potential financial reward is too great for us to pass up. It's obvious our numbers are in decline, the fad is fading, we have to do something. I mean....Zucks got expensive taste, and his wife...I mean, jeez...where they gonna get cheap labor like that, right?"
  • They support immigration reform so they can hire talent from overseas and pay them less.
  • Let try to develop a social network with security protocol and it should be so secured as our internet banking....Sicher like app as an social networking one
  • It seems faster though
  • Lol, the Facebook beta is great
  • A friend of a friend of a friend committed suicide because of this test. F.U. very much Facebook
  • Umm. No. Just no.
  • It can be quite upsetting and abusive but unfortunately this should surprise no one, we need to know what is important and valuable in our own existence, data harvesting and manipulation is sadly a way of life now.
  • Who cares? If they didn't come forward, nobody would've known about it. People are so lame.
  • It would have come out eventually. This is Facebook's attempt at damage limitation their lawyers told them to make the experiment public in an attempt to lessen the scandal
  • Yeah that's not true and you know it. Take off the tin foil hat.
  • Quit using Facebook, that's the best way to send a message to them.
  • This stuff is so silly.
  • Subversive emotional control... The ad agencies are going to love this... More money in the bank!
  • That justification of caring about their users seems a little thin. Ultimately what they're trying to discover is how they can effectively manipulate people to stay engaged in the event the number of eyeballs starts to decline. At the end of the day its all about the bottom line just like with any other enterprise. I sincerely doubt they genuinely "care" about how their users "feel" provided it doesn't drive them away from Facebook. Even the explanation itself is a form of manipulation. It's all about how much they can put over on us to give them an economic advantage without negatively impacting popular opinion or getting into hot water legally. It's kind of nauseating.
  • They need to release the information to the users that were affected by this experiment. Completely unethical.... I want to know if I was one of those 600000 users.
  • "care" as in want to learn how to capitalize on socially inducted emotions, hehe. Brilliant, really!
  • Bullshit. Pure bullshit. I say leave Facebook to wither on the vine and simply reduce its use by 50% then see if you can leave it all together after that. It starts here and who knows what else they haven't said.They already use your image with advertizing shit to your facebook friends for products you don't even use.
  • Nah ill keep using it. And so will everyone else. Good luck with that though.
  • I don't see nothing wrong with this, it's not an invasive experiment and no harm was done I see no reason why people are mad about this but I've been told that I don't really get moved unless my left leg is about to explode
  • This. People just want an excuse to feel outraged
  • Explain to me how you know that no harm was done. Have you personally talked to everyone of the 600,000 people that were used in the experiment? Sure, all you macho guys and gals weren't affected. Your emotoinal stability is legendary, but not everyone using Facebook has your machismo. Beleieve it or not, there are many people whose emotional state is fragile, and many of these people may be using Facebook as their lifeline. Altering the posts they receive could very well have a detrimental effect. And before you call me a paranoid alarmist, remeber we're talking 600,000 users. Even if only one tenth of one percent of the users was negatively impacted, we're still talking hundreds of people.
  • No doubt that the "research' findings will have been sold to advertising companies... Personally, the 'news feeds' are something I ignore.. If people want to influence me... Show me the money!!!!....
  • The only reason I still have an account on facebook is because it lets me sign in to all sorts of sites without dealing with long registration forms. Twitter is good but not as readily available as facebook.
  • Why is this being posted? does this have anything to do with WP? they don't support us why should we even support them? Nothing to read here folks this is all water under the bridge as they say.The powers to be in the media will sweep this way in a few days time.Like the IRS loosing emails and crashing hard drives. People with power and companies with power will do what they want when they want.We the people are just the cash cows.
  • I don't have an issue with research if it's used to improve our lives and not their bottom line. I suspect this research will only ever be used for targeted ads that generates more revenue for them. They should still be getting permission as it constitutes a rights violation.
  • They got permission when you agreed to the terms of use, how are people not getting this?
  • Are you sure being part of research is in those terms?
  • Yes. It's in the data use policy under "information we receive about you".
  • Things like this and personalized search essentially puts us in a bubble and only display what we'd like to see and filter out the opposing argument and possibly, the truth. Also, I think it can skew opinions on people who are generally neutral and unbiased on a topic.
    If social media becomes like this, they would be no different from the press and news channels in conveying information.
  • Worse, because with the news media, you at least can get opposing opinions (CNN vs MSNBC vs FOX).
  • I'm not really worried about this to be honest
  • So this is what all those posts were about.
  • I've never trusted facebook with it's liberal policies and if anyone ever does they are a fool. Oh...were sorry...bs...that doesn't cut it. Facebook groupies or any other social media groupies won't care as long as they can post their lives on-line... So sad what society has become
  • So glad I don't use facecrap
  • For me, these things would never be so much of an issue if organizations just told you what they were doing in the first place instead of hiding it. If Facebook had come out and said "we want to do 'x' experiment, here are our reasons, and we will be randomly contacting 500,000 people to ask them if they want to participate", then it's not as much of an issue. There are people out there who would want to particpate. There are those who would still be against it but they wouldn't have any footing if the particpants were given the option to participate. I feel like this with the government as well. I think most people are reasonable and if things were explained to them clearly people wouldn't be so up and arms everytime something comes out that no one was told about.
  • Finally, someone who gets informed consent. At that point Facebook could have held back information during the research phase.
  • Exactly. I think the general consensus in the world is that most of the population are unreasonable psycho's who can't handle the truth or having things explained to them. That being said, this is a perception because that's all we see in the media.
  • If people knew, it wouldn't be an honest experiment.
  • Said the Jews during the Holocaust. Informed consent! Nuremberg trials laid the groundwork for research studies.
  • Caaaalm down. Not everything is a govt conspiracy. Sheesh.
    At first I thought you were just kidding, but looking at your subsequent posts, I think you truly belive the govt is out to get everyone. Relax man.
  • I don't think so. Imagine you're someone they come to. "jleebiker, we are doing a study on how the posts in timelines affect our moods. We have a theory that the more negative the posts are the more negative you become in your posting and vice versa. Would you like to particpate in a study to see if this is the case? We may, using computer algorithms, alter your timeline." You say yes, you've now given consent to particpate and the idea they may alter your timeline. Do you know how? Will you be actively expecting something different? Maybe, but you'll probably forget about it after a while, and if the subject base is large enough, in this case 689,000 is way more than is scientifically needed, they should get an accurate idea.
  • #pantsonfire
  • Their lawyer did a very nice job of writing that rebuttal.
  • What's the big deal? Our governments run experiments on us every other day. Facebook was just sincere enough to let us know.
  • Omg, history repeats itself. Just because they (the government) do, even if they do, does that make it ok? Have we learned anything from the wars of the last two centuries?
  • Who cares!
  • What if one of these folks was involved in this research without informed consent and due to the negative posts went on a rampage? What if it happens to have been one of the alleged murderers who went on shooting sprees not to long ago? Imagine explaining that to the judge.
  • They should have had less negative friends then.
  • How do you find out if I or any of my family was part of the "experiment"?
  • Questionable practice.
  • The problem is that their outright lust and desire to use their platform for social experimentation outweighed their reasoning, practicality and responsibility in how they approached this experimenting. I have a Facebook account but rarely ever use it. I've already deleted all my Google accounts and now I'm feeling like I'm very close to deleting my Facebook account. I really don't need this nonsense in my life. Facebook is a hassle anyway.