Facebook must ‘come clean’ about teen mood research and ad targeting, consumer groups demand

Click to read Facebook’s statement

Facebook should release secret research it has done to psychologically analyze teen-age users, U.S. consumer groups demanded on Wednesday, after reports surfaced in Australian media that the social media giant had come with up techniques to predict kids’ emotional states — placing them in buckets like “defeated,” “overwhelmed,” “stressed,” “stupid,” “useless,” and “a failure.”

Sometimes called “sentiment mining,” detecting such mood swings could be a powerful tool for advertisers.

The Australian published a report  (behind pay wall) last week saying it had seen an internal 23-page document explaining Facebook research designed to  find “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” The report was prepared to impress advertisers, the Australian said. It was not immediately clear if the research applied only to Australian youth, or others around the world.

Facebook did not deny existence of the study, but said in a post on its website that the Australian story was “misleading.”

“The premise of the article is misleading. Facebook does not offer tools to target people based on their emotional state,” Facebook said. “The analysis done by an Australian researcher was intended to help marketers understand how people express themselves on Facebook. “It was never used to target ads and was based on data that was anonymous and aggregated. Facebook has an established process to review the research we perform. This research did not follow that process, and we are reviewing the details to correct the oversight.”

That’s not good enough, U.S. European, and Brazilian consumer advocates said on Wednesday, with a coalition of 25 groups signing a letter demanding that Facebook makes its research public.

“Facebook needs to come clean and publicly release the full internal document,” said Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad, European Union co-chair of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. “The burden of proof is on Facebook to document publicly that they don’t collect and use such information. We are concerned that companies don’t overreach and abuse their users’ fundamental right to privacy and data protection.”

Among the U.S. groups in the effort are Consumer Action, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumers Union, Public Citizen, and the Public Interest Research Group.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the incident, or the demand.

“The only way to fully address those concerns is to publicly release the internal document and related
materials, accompanied by a more detailed explanation from Facebook of what was intended, what happened and the company’s actual practices,” the letter, addressed to founder Mark Zuckerberg, says. “We ask that Facebook release any research it has conducted worldwide related to the use of biometric measures to understand how young people respond to its various content and applications
(such as Instagram, mobile and 360 video, and geo-location services). For example, in what ways does
Facebook use sentiment mining tools to gather and analyze communications by and among its adolescent and young adult users? In what ways does Facebook work with its advertiser clients to provide research data for marketing to youth? How do expressed moods correlate with responsiveness to advertising?”

Marketers do their best to connect with young consumers, who may not have yet established strong brand affinities.

This is not the first time Facebook’s research into emotions has been scrutinized. In 2014, the firm was accused of conducting unethical research when it allegedly tried to manipulate some users’ moods by altering the content of their news feeds. 

The Australian reports the Facebook research found when young people were experiencing “nervous excitement” or “emotions related to ‘conquering fears.’ ” It also described “anticipatory emotions,” expressed during the week, vs. “reflective emotions” of the weekend.

“Monday-Thursday is about building confidence. The weekend is for broadcasting achievements,” the newspaper said, quoting the alleged document.

It was even able to to identify states of mind like “working out and losing weight.”

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About Bob Sullivan 1135 Articles

BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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