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Journal regrets handling of Facebook study

File - In June 11, 2014 photo, a man walks past a Facebook sign in an office on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO: A scientific journal that published a study by Facebook and two U.S. universities examining people’s online mood swings has said it regrets how the social experiment was handled.

The experiment prompted privacy regulators in the U.K. and France to open inquiries into whether Facebook may have violated any laws.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the decision to manipulate the content appearing on the Facebook pages of about 700,000 people without their prior consent may have violated some principles of academic research.

The journal also pointed out that, as a for-profit company governed by its own terms of service, Facebook had no obligation to adhere to those scientific principles.

“The collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out,” wrote Inder Verma, the Washington, D.C.-based journal’s editor-in-chief.

The unusual “editorial expression of concern” surfaced Thursday, a day after Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg apologized, acknowledging that Facebook should have done a better job of communicating about the experiment.

Facebook allowed researchers to manipulate the content appearing in the main section, or “news feed,” of a small fraction of the social network’s nearly 1.3 billion users.

The scientists conducted the study in January 2012. They were collecting evidence to test their thesis that people’s moods could spread like an “emotional contagion” depending on what they were reading.

Though published a month ago, the experiment did not trigger outrage until the past few days, after articles in The New York Times and The Atlantic raised red flags about the ethics of treating people like lab rats without their permission.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 05, 2014, on page 9.

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Summary

A scientific journal that published a study by Facebook and two U.S. universities examining people's online mood swings has said it regrets how the social experiment was handled.

The journal also pointed out that, as a for-profit company governed by its own terms of service, Facebook had no obligation to adhere to those scientific principles.

Facebook allowed researchers to manipulate the content appearing in the main section, or "news feed," of a small fraction of the social network's nearly 1.3 billion users.


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