Facebook’s mood study: How you became the guinea pig

Originally published June 30, 2014

By Seth Rosenblatt and Ian Sherr

When news spread over the weekend that Facebook had manipulated its news feed to study how social media posts affect people’s emotions, the real surprise was that anyone was that surprised.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by Facebook researcher Adam Kramer, Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University, and Jamie Guillory of the University of California at San Francisco, found that people tended to reflect the emotional state of their friends’ posts.

So if your friends wrote happy posts, your posts in turn tended to be happier. Friends posting about a bad day at work would tend to bring you down.

The disclosure triggered a sharp backlash and elicited an attempt by Facebook to seek forgiveness — one in a long line of mea culpas the company has issued over the years. Yet anyone paying close attention to the boilerplate disclaimers that tech companies regularly publish might have seized upon a couple of seemingly innocent-sounding phrases tucked away in the company’s data use policy that spoke volumes.

Among other things, Facebook says quite clearly in the published document that it might use the information it gathers from people on its social network “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

The tandem phrases “data analysis” and “research” appear to be unique to Facebook’s user legalese. They do not appear in Google’s terms of service and privacy policy, while “research” does appear in Yahoo’s privacy policy but not its terms of service. LinkedIn is open in its privacy policy about the research it conducts on its users.

Google and Yahoo did not respond to a request for comment on whether they perform similar research on their users.

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