Facebook Does It Again


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Copyright © 2014-2015
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Posted July 2, 2014

Shortly after its founding, Facebook had developed a rather simple privacy policy: “No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.”

Over the years, Facebook has frequently changed its Privacy Policy and tinkered with default privacy settings, almost always to the detriment of its users.  Mashable has chronicled some of these changes in its infographic A Short History of Facebook Privacy Failure.

Recently, a team of researchers released a study detailing how emotions expressed in Facebook posts and status updates can actually spread to your friends.  The team randomly selected 689,003 of Facebook's users during January 2012 and manipulated their News Feeds.  Some users experienced a reduced amount of positive news on their feeds, while others experienced a reduced amount of negative news.   Researchers found that users with reduced positive news began to use more negative words, while users with reduced negative news used more positive words.

As Forbes’ Kashmir Hill notes: “The idea of Facebook manipulating users’ emotions for science — without telling them or explicitly asking them first — rubbed many the wrong way. Critics said Facebook should get ‘informed consent’ for a study like this….   Critics and defenders alike pointed out that Facebook’s “permission” came from its Data Use Policy which among its thousands of words informs people that their information might be used for ‘internal operations,’ including ‘research.’”

Hill points out that in January 2012, Facebook’s policy did not say anything about users’ data potentially being used for research purposes.  She notes that it was not until four months after the study occurred that Facebook actually did change its data use policy to allow use of users’ information for research purposes.

Typically, we include consumer tips in postings such as this – advice on how to safeguard your personal information and steer clear of privacy pitfalls. In fact, we frequently advise consumers to read Privacy Policies and website Terms of Service.  However doing so in this instance would not have helped any of Facebook’s users with manipulated News Feeds.  Nonetheless, we urge you to keep your eyes open and weigh the pluses and minuses of using Facebook and other social media. Remember, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

For information on how to protect your privacy on social media, see PRC’s Fact Sheet 35: Social Networking Privacy: How to be Safe, Secure and Social.  Please contact us if you have questions or complaints.

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