After controversial study, Facebook is changing the way it does research

Facebook’s chalkboard wall at its campus in Menlo Park, Calif.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Facebook is changing the way it does research after facing a widespread backlash for a study that manipulated news feeds to gauge emotional effect. 

The world’s largest social network said Thursday that it was making several changes after spending the last three months reviewing its processes. 

“We’re committed to doing research to make Facebook better, but we want to do it in the most responsible way,” Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer said in a blog post

Facebook does research in fields including artificial intelligence, user experience and social science. Its new rules for research cover internal work and research that might be published.


They include clearer guidelines and an enhanced review process before research can begin; a new review panel that consists of senior subject-area researchers and people from its engineering, research, legal, privacy and policy teams; better training for researchers; and a dedicated research website that will be updated regularly. 

The new policies are being instituted following a controversial Facebook study published in June that revealed the company had tinkered with users’ emotions.

To conduct the research, for one week in 2012, hundreds of thousands of Facebook users were unknowingly subjected to an experiment in which their news feeds were altered to see whether certain kinds of content made them happy or sad. 

The result, published in an academic journal, said emotions appeared to be contagious: If users saw happier posts from their friends, they were more likely to post their own happy updates. If they saw sad posts, they were more likely to post their own sad updates.


Scores of users were infuriated by the study, with many accusing the social network of engaging in creepy behavior. 

“Although this subject matter was important to research, we were unprepared for the reaction the paper received when it was published and have taken to heart the comments and criticism,” Schroepfer said. “It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently.”

He said the Menlo Park, Calif., company should have considered other non-experimental ways to do the research, and that the research would also have benefited from more extensive review by a wider and more senior group of people. He also conceded that Facebook “failed to communicate clearly why and how we did it.”

Schroepfer also explained that Facebook decided to do the study after separate research in 2011 suggested that when people saw positive posts from friends on Facebook, it made them feel bad. He said the company wanted to see if that assertion was valid to “see if there was anything we should change about Facebook.”

“We want to do this research in a way that honors the trust you put in us by using Facebook every day,” Schroepfer said. “We will continue to learn and improve as we work toward this goal.”

Twitter: @byandreachang