May 10, 2017
Groups Call on Facebook to Disclose and Explain Its Collection of Psychological Insights About Its Youngest Users
Facebook Told Marketers It Can Detect Teens Feeling 'Insecure' and 'Worthless'; Data Could Be Used to Drive Products Based on Mood and Using Manipulation
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Facebook, Inc. should immediately release all documents describing how it collected and analyzed psychological information it recently collected about its youngest users, some as young as 14, and college students, Public Citizen and a coalition of 26 groups said in a letter to the corporation today.
The groups are concerned about how this information might have been used or may be used in the future by marketers and others to take advantage of young people’s emotions, all without users’ knowledge. Marketing companies and Facebook have secretly moved to tap into teens’ emotions and developmental vulnerabilities strictly for profit, the letter says. The groups want to know how the data was used, when it was used, how many users were impacted and the names of the companies that received the data.
“What began as a way for college students to keep in touch has morphed into a platform for brand-saturated marketing and psychological manipulation,” said Kristen Strader, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert campaign. “It is incumbent upon Facebook as a cultural leader to protect, not exploit, the privacy of young people, especially when their vulnerable emotions are involved.”
According to The Australian newspaper, Facebook presented research to one of its advertisers that shows it collects sensitive data regarding young users’ emotions and “mood shifts.” The research detailed how Facebook can analyze sensitive user data in real time to determine how young users are communicating emotion, and at which points during the week they are doing so, the letter continued. Facebook’s research was conducted without users’ knowledge, which raises ethical concerns.
“Because Facebook plays such a powerful role in the lives of teens, it must adopt a policy that respects and protects them,” said Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, professor of communication at American University and a consultant to the Center for Digital Democracy. “This should include not only strong safeguards for its advertising and data practices, but also clear limits on the kinds of research it conducts for marketing purposes. Under no circumstances should marketers be using emotional states, stress levels, biometric information or other highly sensitive data to target users. And this should apply to both young people and adults.”
“Facebook needs to come clean and publicly release the full internal document, reported in The Australian, describing how Facebook collected and analyzed psychological information on high school students, college students and young users, 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.”
The public, its users and elected officials have a right to know how pervasive this research was, who was affected and how the company will ensure it does not occur again, the groups said. 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 says.
Read the letter.