Are emotions contagious? That’s the question Facebook allegedly set out to answer when it conducted a controversial week-long social experiment back in January 2012. As New Scientist reported last week, Facebook tweaked the news feeds of more than 600,000 users to determine how people react to an onslaught of positive or negative posts. The study produced the results Facebook was looking for: A happy news feed prompted people to post more positive content, and (depressingly, for some unlucky users) the opposite was also true.
According to The Atlantic, Facebook’s head of Global Policy Management, Monika Bickert, defended the study at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, and noted that it was simply an extension of customer service, giving users “more of what they want to see, and less of what they don’t want to see.” She continued:
“That’s innovation. That’s the reason that when you look at Facebook or YouTube, you’re only seeing new features. And that’s the reason that if you’ve got that one annoying friend from high school who always posts her photos of her toddler, every day, that’s the reason you don’t see all of those over the News Feed.”
On Wednesday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said the experiment was standard fare–“part of ongoing research companies do to test different products”–but that it was “poorly communicated.” She apologized and added that Facebook takes privacy and security “really seriously.”
European privacy watchdogs might disagree. Data protection agencies in Ireland and Britain are investigating whether or not Facebook’s actions are in breach of local privacy laws, particularly regarding the issue of whether the social network got the informed consent of users prior to conducting the study. This certainly isn’t the first time the Facebook has displeased the powers that be in Europe–and it likely won’t be the last.