October 2, 2014

Facebook Offers Apology Following News Feed Study Involving Cornell Professor

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Facebook issued an apology Thursday after months of criticism for a study — partly coauthored by two Cornellians — that manipulated users’ news feeds to see how their emotions would change without their knowledge.

The study, published in June, involved the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users and was co-authored by Prof. Jeffrey Hancock, communication and information science, former Cornell doctoral student Jamie Guillory ’13 and Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer.

Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer apologized both for the way in which Facebook conducted the research and for the manner in which the study was released.

“It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently,” Schroepfer wrote. “For example, we should have considered other non-experimental ways to do this research. The research would also have benefited from more extensive review by a wider and more senior group of people. Last, in releasing the study, we failed to communicate clearly why and how we did it.”

The social media company came under fire over the summer following the release of the study’s findings. Users were outraged after the study gained national attention because they were not informed that their news feeds were being altered for experimental purposes.

Through­out the experiments, neither Hancock nor Guillory were directly involved in collecting user data, but they analyzed results after discussions with Facebook, according to the University.

“Because the research was conducted independently by Facebook and Professor Hancock had access only to results — and not to any individual, identifiable data at any time — Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required,” a University press release stated.

Schroepfer’s apology contrasts a statement made earlier this summer by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. In her apology, Sandberg only expressed regret for poor communication about the intention of the study, and not for the study itself, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated” Sandberg said in a meeting in New Delhi. “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”

Schroepfer went on to delineate the methods Facebook plans to use to improve their research, including a public website that will hold all of their published academic research.  However, he made it clear Facebook plans to continue research.

“We believe in research, because it helps us build a better Facebook,” Schroepfer wrote. “It’s important to engage with the academic community and publish in peer-reviewed journals, to share technology inventions and because online services such as Facebook can help us understand more about how the world works.”