Facebook policy head says emotion experiments were ‘innovative’


Monika Bickert has defended the site’s experimentation, saying it is necessary to ensure the site keeps improving

Facebook’s head of policy, Monika Bickert, has claimed that the company’s emotion experiments were “innovation” and a necessary part of the research needed for new features and developments.

Bickert said that “most of the research that is done on Facebook” is “all about ‘how do we make this product better’”, while speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday.

“It’s concerning when we see legislation that could possibly stifle that sort of creativity and that innovation,” Bickert, in contrast to the apology offered on Wednesday by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.

‘Make sure we’re being transparent’

“That’s innovation. That’s the reason that when you look at Facebook or YouTube you’re always seeing new features. And that’s the reason if you have that annoying friend from high school that always posts pictures of their toddler every single day, that’s reason that you don’t see all those photos in your news feed,” said Bickert.

Bickert admitted that Facebook’s handling of the research could have been clearer to users, saying that “it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we’re transparent about what we’re doing and that people understand exactly why we’re doing what we do.”

“What I think we have to do in the future is make sure we’re being transparent, both to regulators and to people using the product about exactly what we’re doing,” she said.

‘Emotional contagion’

The experiments caused outrage with users and researchers alike over the weekend, when a scientific paper based on the research that involved nearly 700,000 users over one week in 2012.

Facebook hid “a small percentage” of emotional words from peoples’ news feeds, without their knowledge, to test what effect that had on the statuses or “likes” that they then posted or reacted to.

The company’s researchers discovered that tweaking the content of peoples’ “news feeds” created an “emotional contagion” across the social network, by which people who saw one emotion being expressed would themselves express similar emotions.

The research was conducted without the knowledge of users and has caused controversy as to whether it crossed an ethical line, with paper’s publishers conducting an investigation. The UK’s data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, is looking into the situation to see if any UK laws were broken.