Sheryl Sandberg says the problem with Facebook’s controversial emotion study is that it was “poorly communicated.”
The company’s chief operating officer apologized for that, during a stop in New Delhi on Wednesday, according to a Wall Street Journal dispatch from India. While there, Sandberg reportedly has been meeting with small-business advertisers and also speaking with groups about her “Lean In” campaign to help women advance in the workplace.
Sandberg’s remarks represent the first public statement by a company executive since online reports last weekend sparked a firestorm of debate and criticism over the study. For one week in 2012, researchers said they tested the emotional reactions of nearly 700,000 Facebook users – without their knowledge – by reducing the number of positive or negative updates from friends that appeared in their news feeds.
The results showed what the researchers called a measurable change in the users’ moods, gauged by the positive or negative tone of their own Facebook postings. While the lead Facebook researcher later said the impact was “minimal,” critics have complained that the study amounted to manipulating users’ emotions without their informed consent – as such consent is defined by standards that academic and government researchers must follow.
Facebook’s defenders have argued that the study was no different from other tests that online companies conduct all the time, in order to see how users’ react to different types of messages or advertising. And Sandberg’s reported comments echo a stance that Facebook has adopted since the furor erupted: She was conciliatory, but didn’t concede any error or lapse in the study itself.
“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was. It was poorly communicated,” Sandberg said, according to the Journal. “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”
Facebook’s position that the test was part of the company’s product research efforts is somewhat different from the way researchers first described the study in an article for a scientific journal, which said the findings could have public health implications. Legal experts say the difference could be significant, because research conducted to advance scientific knowledge, rather than to develop proprietary services or products, can trigger stricter rules aimed at safeguarding human test subjects.
Meanwhile, in an interview with India’s NDTV, Sandberg denied that the research was intended to control users’ emotions. “Facebook cannot control emotions of users. Facebook will not control emotions of users,” she reportedly said.
(Photo of Sheryl Sandberg speaking at Salesforce.com conference last year, by Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)