Sheryl Sandberg: ‘We never meant to upset you’ with Facebook’s psychological newsfeed study


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a session in New Delhi, India, 02 July 2014. Sandberg adressed a gathering during a session organised by Federation of Indian chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) Ladies Organization (FLO) on 'Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead'. EPA/MONEY SHARMA

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is sorry if anybody was made angry by the whole "we're going to make you sad and see what happens" experiment, disclosed last week, that alarmed many of the service's users.

Speaking in New Delhi Wednesday, Sandberg said the study was a routine practice in the commercial sector — echoing some defenders of the social network — but that the nature of the study was "poorly communicated" to users.

"And for that communication we apologize," said Sandberg, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We never meant to upset you."

In an interview with India's NDTV, Sandberg added that "Facebook cannot control emotions of users. Facebook will not control emotions of users."

Sandberg's comments came a day after British regulators said they were looking into the Facebook newsfeed study, which randomly but selectively tweaked some newsfeeds to be more positive or more negative to see whether those emotional tones would change Facebook users' behavior. The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, affected nearly 700,000 English-speaking accounts without the knowledge of their owners, raising questions about the methodology and ethics of Facebook's research.

Some have taken the opportunity to argue that a culture of "free" has largely misled Internet users into giving up their personal data without a full appreciation of how it might be used — a poor tradeoff we haven't even realized we've made, according to Arizona State University media scholar Dan Gillmor.

"What's lacking in a world of monopoly and oligopoly communications is accountability," Gillmor wrote in a blog post Tuesday. "There's almost none today, and the risks are growing."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung · July 2