Facebook’s Own Records Contradict Its Latest Apology


If by “people” you mean “Facebook researchers”

We won’t say that Facebook has gotten good at apologizing, but they’re certainly used to it. At this point, even your great aunt has heard about the disastrous effects of a research paper that revealed the details of the company’s “manipulative” emotional A/B testing study. It might be Facebook’s biggest PR challenge to date because, even though it was probably not illegal, many users feel violated somehow.

The damage control line so far has been “it’s all about research” with the ultimate goal of improving the user experience–and that everyone implicitly agreed to play the part of unknowing digital lab rat when he/she clicked “OK” on Facebook’s terms and conditions.

Last night, however, a Forbes story undermined this claim.

In the middle of the annoying text blocks you ostensibly read when you agree to Facebook’s conditions sat a line about how the company might use your data for:

“…internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

The problem? The word “research” was only added in May 2012–four months after the study ended. Looks like someone’s legal adviser wisely recognized a potential liability after the fact.

We tend to align ourselves with those who say this is all much ado about very little. As data science dude Adam D. I. Kramer put it, “the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it”. But for a company as massive as Facebook, the slope will always be extra slippery. Another relevant point: there was no age limit on the study, so it may have affected users under 18 (insert lame joke about how they’re already emotional enough here).

Consumer-facing companies of all sizes use behavioral data to improve their services all the time and no one seems to care–especially if it leads to some kind of deal or discount. But Facebook isn’t quite like any other company, and so they can’t expect to be treated like they are. We have no doubt that the company could find more than 600,000 people willing to undergo some research, but then that would undermine the very nature of the study, wouldn’t it?

Maybe it’s time for Zuckerberg to write another “we screwed up” op-ed. We would suggest that he do so in the form of a real-life Facebook post, but no one actually sees those anymore.