Facebook Exec Apologizes for Controversial Emotions Study

British data protection authorities are investigating revelations that Facebook conducted a psychological experiment on its users.

By NBC Bay Area Staff and Wires
|  Wednesday, Jul 2, 2014  |  Updated 4:24 PM EDT
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Facebook Exec Apologizes for Controversial Emotions Study

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Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg addresses an interactive session organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in New Delhi on July 2, 2014. Sandberg, who is in India to promote her book "Lean In" advocating gender equality and meet with leaders of top Indian policymakers, admitted that Facebook "communicated really badly" about a controversial study in which it manipulated users' feelings. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg apologized Wednesday for the social networking site’s controversial psychological experiment that sparked an online firestorm over the weekend.

"We clearly communicated really badly about this and that we really regret," Sandberg told television network NDTV in India. "Facebook has apologized, and certainly we never want to do anything that upsets users."

Sandberg is in India to promote her book "Lean In" and meet with top Indian policymakers.

The Facebook survey provoked an outcry on social media and prompted questions by the media, including The New York Times and The Atlantic, about the ethics of manipulating users' feeds without their consent.

"Facebook cannot control emotions of users. Facebook will not control emotions of users," Sandberg assured users, NDTV reported.

Still, British data protection authorities are investigating the revelations that Facebook conducted a psychological experiment on its users.

The Information Commissioner's Office said Wednesday that it wants to learn more about the circumstances of the experiment, jointly carried out by two U.S. universities and the social network.

The commissioner's office is working with authorities in Ireland, the home of Facebook's 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.

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 an effort in Europe to beef up data protection regulation. 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 conduct studies on how to influence behavior. 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 behavior 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."

The Associated Press' Danica Kirka and Mae Anderson contributed to this report.

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