Note to Facebook: Non-apology Apologies Don’t Count

Earlier this week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offered a half-hearted apology after it became clear that data collected by the online social network was used in a social science study. Sandberg didn’t say the company was sorry for collecting the data without its users’ informed consent—only that it had been “poorly communicated.”

“We never meant to upset you,” Sandberg said.

As Time’s Jared Newman has pointed out, her words were basically a “corporate non-apology.” In other words, Facebook wasn’t sorry for what it did—only that it got caught and that people were upset.

The study in question set out to manipulate emotions based on the types of posts people saw in their Facebook Newsfeeds. In general, people whose Newsfeeds showed less positive posts were more likely to use negative words in their own status updates. Fewer negative posts produced an opposite pattern.

“The results show emotional contagion,” report study authors Adam Kramer, Jamie Guillory, and Jeffrey Hancock in PNAS, the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, which published the study last month.

Now PNAS has issued an “Editorial Expression of Concern.” Because Facebook collected the data based on its internal policies, the Cornell researchers had determined they were not subject to the “Common Rule.” That’s the general federal policy for the protection of human subjects. Despite that, the editors note:

It is nevertheless a matter of concern that 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.

This may be more than the half-hearted apology Facebook offered, but it leaves a lot of open questions.

A primary reason for requiring informed consent is to protect potential test subjects. The Common Rule also establishes a level playing field for conducting scientific research.

The researchers in this case may have had good motives in using the Facebook data. But should any researchers be able to evade the Common Rule’s requirements just because their data comes from a corporation, rather than the laboratory?

It’s times like this that I wish Facebook had a “dislike” button.



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