back to article British and European data cops probe Facebook user-manipulation scandal

UK and Irish data watchdogs are investigating claims that Facebook failed to seek the consent of its users before allowing researchers to manipulate their emotions via newsfeed meddling. The Register asked the office of the UK's Information Commissioner if it planned to probe Facebook following widespread criticism of its …

  1. SuccessCase

    Thereby proving how useless T&C's are anyway. Do we honestly believe there would be any less Facebook users if the clause had actually been included in time?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Do we honestly believe there would be any less Facebook users if the clause had actually been included in time?

      Not with the prevailing TL;DR attitude. It would indeed not have made a blind bit of difference from the users' perspective. However, from the FB side this is a problem as it had not declared this intention and thus ended up on the wrong side of Data Protection laws.

      Not that they care much - I don't think the fine will even register in their accounts.

      1. Byham

        I am not sure that is the case. Many EU or European Commission based fines are percentages of company turnover.

  2. Forget It

    Time to close that FB place down.

    1. Piro

      .. and nothing of value was lost.

  3. cracked

    Which issue

    So presumably the - legal - issue isn't that the tests were done; it's that information - even if anonymous - was passed to some researchers?

    For a while I thought the actual "test" were being considered illegal. When you think about how personalised websites work, that would have been nuts.

    So but anyway, its Facebook; ban it for life, or something :-)

  4. Eddy Ito Silver badge
    Meh

    It's all just another internet too-point-oh pawn-zee scheme. Funny bit is it was all pointless research, television has known this for a long time. Good news makes folks feel good and secure so they go on about their normal lives while bad/scary/dramatic news keeps them firmly planted in front of the squawk box to see how it plays out - "we'll be right back after a word from our sponsors."

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      You're right up to a point. That point being popular TV shows. They're so-called reality that are filled with drama and disaster (maybe "disaster" is too harsh a word since no one's died). Folks also like to think they're better off than other people.

  5. Pete 2 Silver badge

    The internet is now ... closed for business

    > to see if their emotions could be manipulated based on which posts they were served

    Shudder.

    So if these people find that explicitly manipulating the emotions of web users is illegal, that's pretty much the end of the whole thing.

    Every advertisement intends to manipulate readers' emotions (greed, lust, fear, more greed, confusion, avarice, envy and some more greed). Every troll post tries to do something very similar (e.g. Apple products are overpriced and only bought by people who value style over substance) such as instill anger, laughter (at those who get angry), confusion or happiness - as Madame de Gaulle once mispronounced.

    Get rid of all instances of this and we're back in the days of Gopher and newsgroups.

    1. Awil Onmearse

      Re: The internet is now ... closed for business

      "Get rid of all instances of this and we're back in the days of Gopher and newsgroups."

      Upsides: No windows Vista, no Javascript, Ruby, or any other of a plethora of shitty technologies and the scam-artists monetising them. Suits, management and grannies excluded by their own ignorance from from IT.

      Downsides: .

    2. Michael Thibault
      Devil

      Re: The internet is now ... closed for business

      >Get rid of all instances of this and we're back in the days of Gopher and newsgroups.

      You make it sound so easy. If only... If only...

      That aside, it seems to me that the outrage is necessarily constrained to the question of permission/notice/consent; Facebook is built almost entirely on emotional manipulation as it is, so their formally undertaking research to make the tool sharper isn't much of a reach. Offensive that Fb couldn't content itself with the impetus of the juggernaut it's created--fueled almost entirely by people's insecurities about their social position-but not a surprise. Probably the bean-counters or the shareholders put the fear into management about 'are you doing enough?'.

    3. Don Jefe

      Re: The internet is now ... closed for business

      It's not just advertisements that are scientifically designed to fuck with your emotions. Everything from the color of paint, type of flooring and color temperature of the lighting in brick and mortar stores down to the shape of the buttons, font details and presentation of information on websites is designed to elicit an emotional response from you. The success of those things is judged by how many people take whatever action those emotions were supposed to encourage.

      Emotional manipulation is so pervasive that people don't even realize it's going on all around them. But recognizing it isn't the point, the stuff that really works well on the intended target is rarely recognized by the target, but they are still effected by it. Nobody gets through the day without being effected by emotional manipulation unless they live in the wilderness. Even prisoners are subjected to it.

      We all live inside a massive marketing experiment where hypothesis are validated, falsified and repostulated based on a score that begins with the currency symbol of your choice. Facebook didn't do anything other companies don't do, but Facebook is just really easy target with an overdeveloped ego. The 'Don Drapers' of the advertising world were on their way out in the 1960's, replaced by behavioral science researchers, psychologists and the same social studies professionals responsible for classic marketing practices such as those beloved by your favorite dictator. Those people are rooting through your data all day, everyday, for ways to improve yields in their experiments.

      Emotionally manipulative commercial practices aren't ever going away unless Star Trek is a documentary that fell backwards through time. Where Facebook fucked up was becoming directly involved instead of letting their data customers do what they're already doing anyway. My (hopelessly?) optimistic view of all this is that the general public learns more about their role as guinea pigs in formal psychology experiments. Maybe they'll get angry enough to push back on advertisers.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @ Don Jefe Re: The internet is now ... closed for business

        'Hopelessly'? I think so. The way I see it is that kind of understanding is a death-bed realization; one of those things they'll cotton to - if they otherwise retain sufficient awareness - when they know it's all over so all the dross evaporates to leave them finally able to see. And it's not even the price of Human stupidity, it's just how we're wired; how Evolution wired us for wrestling sabre-tooth cats for the Brontoburger and hasn't progressed since.

        Put it another way: I see your note of optimism and raise you a hint of futility.

        1. Uffish

          Re: brontoburgers

          Did you and Sarah Palin go to school together?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The internet is now ... closed for business

        Maybe. Maybe we just need a big ark to get all the Facebook users off the planet. Zuckerberg can pilot it.

        The general public? Your average Soviet citizen's only interest in the KGB was as a way of getting back at someone who annoyed him. The majority of people are hard wired to accept any power structure that seems to be giving them what they want, because that makes for stability. Psychopaths in charge, ordinary people doing what they're told, and periodic inter-tribal fighting keeps the population in check.

        It would be nice if we were more like bonobos, but I notice they didn't take over the world. We did.

  6. Colin Brett
    Paris Hilton

    Quick question ...

    I don't know if this has been answered (or even asked) elsewhere but exactly which week in 2012 was the "research" carried out?

    Was it before or after the 18th May 2012 IPO?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    Colin

    Paris because she probably doesn't know either :-)

  7. User McUser
    Thumb Up

    Schadenfreude

    Say what you will, their study was right; I started feeling a lot happier after reading this article.

  8. Crazy Operations Guy Silver badge

    Would they be liable

    Would Facebook be liable if someone they manipulated committed suicide or murder on or around the the time of the experiment?

  9. Ian Adams
    Headmaster

    Informed consent?

    The original paper is light on the countries of origins of the "participants"

    BUT:

    "The experiments took place for 1 wk (January 11–18, 2012). Participants were randomly selected based on their User ID"

    AND

    "such that no text was seen by the researchers. As such, it was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research."

    Not sure I would consider that informed consent. Supprised that the ethics comittee at Princeton bought it.

    All to be found at http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full

  10. Mark 85 Silver badge

    One has to wonder....

    How many of those were fake profiles and so how much of their valuable insight was skewed? bwahahahaha

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm surprised they managed to get useful data within one week from a sample of users chosen at random, since presumably the process involved something like:

    - monitor messages in & out for a period to establish a baseline

    - skew in messages to +ve vibes for a period and monitor out messages

    - skew in messages to -ve vibes for a period and monitor out messages

    I realise some FB users will generate sufficient data on this basis within 7 days, but what proportion of a random sample ? It would seem to bias any analysis to the most frenetic FB users, but then maybe those are the valuable ones.

  12. Rule of Thumb

    Did you notice...

    Ha ha. FB sucks...

    But did any of you fucktards notice that the effect sizes are all the first decimal of a percentage? The largest Cohen's d was 0.008. Essentially nothing happened.

    I know the unwashed masses are stupid but I expected some of you to notice the obvious.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Did you notice...

      Doesn't matter whether he proved anything or not, they should not have done it at all.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Did you notice...

        "they should not have done it at all."

        Why not? FB's service, FB's platform; they can do whatever they want with it.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: Did you notice...

          Did you know that El Reg's Terms of Service allow the SPB to send your pets into space?*

          It's their platform, their rules, they can do whatever they want with it.

          Just because you own the platform doesn't mean you can do what you want with the users of said platform. There are laws governing what you can and cannot do.

          * They don't, but there's nothing stopping them putting that clause in if they felt like it. It still wouldn't allow them to do it.

          1. Don Jefe

            Re: Did you notice...

            If owning something allowed you to do whatever you wanted with it a significant portion of the worlds population would be living in an enormous transparent dome together with an enormous number of cloned dinosaurs and contemporary stoats. Broadcasts, wager share and private safaris would be the core of the model. I would use the vast profits from those things to continue my, as yet, ill fated horse/tiger hybrid breeding experiments and to establish a research center geared specifically toward creating crocodile based domestic servants.

            Not all laws are good, and sometimes the good ones are abused, that's just part of it. But in a lot of cases the existence of a law(s) prohibiting something are enough to dissuade most people from doing certain things. There's a universe full of not yet illegal activities to satiate whatever desires one may have; you're limited only by your imagination and resources. It's just a lot of hassle to break the law.

            Although the hilarity potential is fantastically high, little good ever comes from experimenting on people without their express permission. Sure, it all starts out just fine, but sooner or later somebody is going to propose something of comic book level insanity and it'll get a green light. At any given time, full on crazy town is a lot closer than people think. Left to their own devices, Humans tend to treat each other very badly. Doubly so if you're an 'inferior' gender, race or religion. It's just better for everybody if covert medical experiments cloaked in EULA's are not only prohibited, the punishments for dicking around with that sort of thing should be quite severe.

  13. Diogenes

    Filter bubbles anyone ???

    http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles

    Knowing full well how lazy students are and only select the top 2 results when doing "research" I give them a carefully crafted search term that should return the best sources first. For some queries students seems to get various results. In order to help overcome this I have mandated Chrome & Ghostery to reduce the number of "signal" google uses to screw up the results

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Boycott Facebook

    Haha you can't boycott Facebook, bitch.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Boycott Facebook

      Privacy Badger works for me.

  15. dan1980

    ". . . none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account . . ."

    Maybe the results weren't matched to names but you were still dicking around with 'specific users' and that's the main problem.

    Specific people were part of an experiment that, by the standards of those conducting the research, was not conducted with 'informed consent'. They can point to T&Cs all they like but a long stream with generic language about 'improving services' cannot possibly be considered adequate for a psychological experiment.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If I was a Facebook engineer...

    ...A peddler of creepy advertising, like a tobacco executive who peddles cigarettes to children in developing countries.... I'd wake up and ask myself: What am I doing with my life...???

    Every single day I cloak Facebook in PR spin about 'being social', but secretly I know that Facebook is highly 'addictive' nicotine, an advertising delivery device, that tricks people into clicking on ads....

    I would drop my head in shame and ask: Why am I not trying to change the world: get us to Mars for example...? Then I'd probably go and eat a bullet...

    1. deadlockvictim Silver badge

      Re: If I was a Facebook engineer...

      A.C.» I'd wake up and ask myself: What am I doing with my life...???

      Answer» Pulling in a handsome salary while exploiting all of the resources at my disposal, including you, if you don't stop me.

    2. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: If I was a Facebook engineer...

      What are they doing with their life? Exactly the same as almost all other people in the world. Most of us don't change the world with our day jobs, we just get a wage for pushing out whatever IT it is that our corporate masters need.

    3. Jamie Jones Silver badge

      Re: If I was a Facebook engineer...

      " ...A peddler of creepy advertising, like a tobacco executive who peddles cigarettes to children in developing countries.... I'd wake up and ask myself: What am I doing with my life...???

      If I was the anon coward who had posted this same message at least 3 times now, in different El Reg forums, I'd be wondering similar.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: If I was a Facebook engineer...

        Good for you, you're paying attention. It doesn't change the heart of the message though...

        1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

          Re: If I was a Facebook engineer...

          I totally agree with you!

  17. Winkypop Silver badge
    Terminator

    The trick is....

    ....to never join FB.

    [Engage smug mode]

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The trick is....

      Until you find someone has created a Facebook identity exactly like you for purposes of fraud. Join Facebook, create an account with only essential data to show it's you, lock it down and never respond to their emails. Then when a potential employer wants to see your Facebook page, let them.

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge
        Big Brother

        Re: The trick is....

        "Then when a potential employer wants to see your Facebook page, let them."

        "Then when a potential employer wants to see parts of your Facebook page you haven't made public to anyone, walk."

        FTFY

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The trick is....

          If a potential employer needed to see my (non existent) social media profile, then I'd be walking before they ever said anything.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The trick is....

        I don't think you even need to join facebook to be in the db, you will be cross referenced from contacts who's chins still glisten with the Kool-aid.

        I would not mind betting they are already advertising to, or are profiling FB users, from data gleened from their faceb-less contacts. Data built up by cross reference is probably also not covered by gentleman advertisers agreements.

        Luckily I have no friends now, and those who admitted to being on facebook have long since "disappeared".

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The trick is....

          "I don't think you even need to join facebook to be in the db, you will be cross referenced from contacts who's chins still glisten with the Kool-aid."

          It's called a "negative profile". And when you are tagged in pictures by your so-called friends, your privacy is lost.

  18. knarf

    Future Elections

    Q: So how do we win the next election?

    A: Well we give FB $100m and with use 50% increase in cat videos to our targeted demographic, showing bad news to the maybes.

    Q: Will that really work?

    A: Worked last time.

  19. Gartal
    Childcatcher

    For Sale

    One pre loved Grandmother in fair condition. Only driven to church on Sundays.

  20. Peter Clarke 1
    Alert

    Never Forget

    On Facebook YOU are the product and the advertisers are the customers

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nothing to see here, no questions to answer

    Facebook's code, Facebook's service, Facebook's service. The mugs (i.e. users) gave Facebook an irrevocable, royalty free, global license to use everything they handed over for any purpose whatsoever.

    That was their choice, they were free to make it. Now that Facebook has done something with their own products, the mugs are crying like little bitches. Well, boo-hoo.

    If you don't like it; stop using Facebook! No one is forcing you.

    A waste of taxpayer's money.

  22. GeneralDisaster

    LOL, irish data protection commissioner

    I wouldn't hold out much hope of the Irish being able to do much, here is their rather tiny office that is already a source of much mirth here in Ireland. A toothless watchdog in a very small kennel if ever there was one. the remit from central government seems to be don't bite the hand that feeds it (large tech companies), that don't much pay much tax, but hey that's another story.

    https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msa=0&msid=105581465507343354317.0004656675b62ffc5701c&cd=2&ie=UTF8&ll=53.14849,-7.183192&spn=0.000986,0.001749&z=15&iwloc=00047a71f498df5f95aa8

  23. Snar
    Trollface

    Graphic

    Dear El Reg,

    You need to head over to b3ta.com and enlist a tame graphic artist / Photoshop hack to create your strap images.

    This one lets the side down a little. C- Good effort but not quite there :)

  24. Cynthia D.

    Slow learners

    This is not the first time the folks at Facebook have needed guidance.

    http://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cases/2012/08/120810facebookdo.pdf

    And, thanks to the effort of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, they'll be given another lesson. http://epic.org/privacy/ftc/facebook/Facebook-Study-Complaint.pdf .

    That lesson is: If you are unable to make wise decisions regarding your interactions with others, others will make the decisions for you.

    Those hundreds of thousands of people have the right to be notified that they were subjects of this study and then they have the right to decide if they want to initiate a class action law suit.

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