Facebook on its mood manipulation study: Another non-apology apology

Who, me? Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg pleads guilty with an explanation, on the company's secret mood manipulation study.
Who, me? Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg pleads guilty with an explanation, on the company’s secret mood manipulation study.

There may be no company on Earth more experienced at saying “we’re sorry, but not really” than Facebook.

The latest example concerns the company’s now-infamous 2012 psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 unwitting users, which broke into public consciousness over the weekend when its researchers published their findings in a scientific journal.

Speaking in New Delhi, according to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the following:

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


This apology deserves a score of 0.0. What has people upset isn’t how Facebook “communicated” the study--it never communicated anything about it until now, two and a half years after the secret study was conducted. As for claiming “we never meant to upset you,” arguably the study was designed to upset users--the company manipulated posts in their news feeds to raise and lower their moods.

Sandberg’s statement falls right into line with the company’s habit of mistreating or misleading its users and apologizing, lamely, only after it gets caught. Its strategy is always to plead “guilty, with an explanation.”

Here’s an instructive look at the record. All statements were from Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder, chairman, and CEO:

Sept. 8, 2006: “We really messed this one up.” Subject: News Feed and Mini-Feed were implemented in a way that exposed users’ private posts to others, without their knowledge. Zuckerberg continued, “This was a big mistake on our part, and I’m sorry for it. But apologizing isn’t enough. I wanted to make sure we did something about it, and quickly. So we have been coding nonstop for two days to get you better privacy controls.”

Dec. 5, 2007: We simply did a bad job with this release.” Subject: Beacon. This was an advertising-like service that, as Pete Cashmore of Mashable described it, “posted your activity on third-party websites - Blockbuster, Gamefly, and more - back to your Facebook profile.” But the activity was being sent without the users’ permission. Then it was reported that Beacon collected data even from non-Facebook members.

More Zuckerberg: “It took us too long after people started contacting us to change the product so that users had to explicitly approve what they wanted to share....I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this situation and I know we can do better.”

May 24, 2010: “Sometimes we move too fast.” Subject: Sending user IDs to advertisers without users’ knowledge. Zuckerberg, who had responded to the previous two fiascos with statements on the company website, resorted to an op-ed in the Washington Post for this one. Under some circumstances, information from users’ personal Facebook profiles could be transmitted to advertisers when the users clicked on ads.

Zuckerberg painted this blunder as an outgrowth of Facebook’s drive to make the world a better place: “The challenge is how a network like ours facilitates sharing and innovation, offers control and choice, and makes this experience easy for everyone....The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information. Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark.”


There’s more, but that should give you a flavor.

Facebook has made changes to its users’ rights, account settings, and its terms of service without providing what privacy and consumer advocates would consider sufficient notice--or even comprehensible notice. Every time, Zuckerberg wrings his hands and asks for tolerance and forgiveness--after all, this is all in the name of helping people “understand what was going on in their world a little better,” or creating a “more open and connected” world..."And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

Of course this is a joke. The idea that it’s all about an open and connected world is PR baloney--it’s all about exploiting your personal information for corporate gain, and you forget that at your peril.

This time it’s Sheryl Sandberg’s turn to do the mea culpa act. Maybe Zuckerberg thought she had glamor and public esteem to spare, so she could expend some of it uttering transparent nonsense. Nonsense such as this: “We take privacy and security at Facebook really seriously because that is something that allows people to share.”


Government agencies here and abroad have been taking a harder look at Facebook’s practices. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission and Facebook settled charges the company deceived consumers “by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

Facebook settled the case by agreeing to oversight of its privacy practices by independent outside auditors for 20 years. Amazingly, Facebook was conducting its secret mood-manipulation study at the very time it was negotiating that settlement.

This latest episode may cause the company more regulatory pain, as it should. British and Irish regulators have said they’re going to take a look at the study. The FTC needs to take a harder line, too. So should users; Facebook’s serial excuse-making has long since lost its credibility.

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