Facebook faces Federal action over emotional contagion study

US privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over Facebook’s use of user data in its “emotion contagion” study.

“The company purposefully messed with people’s minds. Facebook conducted the psychological experiment with researchers at Cornell University and the University of California, San Francisco, who failed to follow standard ethical protocols for human subject research,” EPIC said in its complaint.

“Facebook’s conduct is both a deceptive trade practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act and a violation of the Commission’s 2012 Consent Order,” the complaint read.

The emotion study was conducted by researchers in June on nearly 700,000 Facebook users to investigate a phenomenon dubbed as “emotional contagion”.

The researchers found that emotional states can spread across social networks.

The research sparked uproar among people who felt the study violated personal privacy.

In its complaint, EPIC also demanded that the FTC conduct a probe into the study and sharing of data without explicit user consent with third-party researchers.

Meanwhile, the scientific journal that published the Facebook study about how emotions spread across social networks has defended its decision to publish the research.

According to Inder Verma, editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the decision to publish the research was deemed appropriate based on the information provided by the study authors.

“Obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out are best practices in most instances under the US Department of Health and Human Services Policy for the Protection of Human Research Subjects,” Verma said in a statement.

“As a private company, Facebook was under no obligation to conform to the provisions of the Common Rule when it collected the data used by the authors, and the Common Rule does not preclude their use of the data,” Verma wrote.

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, Verma emphasised in the note.