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Facebook will research you at the request of marketers

Cambridge Analytica fallout
Facebook suspends Cambridge Analytica, firm with ties to Trump campaign 05:35

The story below was originally published in May 2017. It has been republished in light of news that Facebook suspended data firm Cambridge Analytica for improperly obtaining data harvested from 50 million users.

Companies looking to get an edge in their use of advertising on Facebook can ask the social network to conduct research and compile reports about its users' online activities, Facebook acknowledged Monday in an email to CBS News. But Facebook noted that it considers some key questions in deciding whether to agree to such requests.

"Before moving forward with research, some of the questions our teams use to evaluate are: Will the analysis improve the community or people's experience on Facebook? Are there potential adverse consequences in using the insights? Would people expect this research to take place? Is the research consistent with our Data Policy?" The company said.

The explanation came in response to questions about a report in The Australian newspaper, which obtained a 23-page leaked document compiled by Facebook executives in Australia, showing the use of algorithms to collect data on more than six million young people in that country and New Zealand. 

The leaked document highlighted the company's ability to identify "moments when young people need a confidence boost" and when young people feel "worthless" or "insecure."

Facebook said Monday advertisers on the site are not able to target users based on their emotional states. It added that the research should not have been conducted and wasn't vetted through its normal review process, which is outlined in the image below. 

An infographic, provided by Facebook, that shows the company's review process for research proposals. Facebook

The company said the research was conducted last year based on anonymous data, was not used to target ads, and involved only people in Australia and New Zealand.

"When conducting research Facebook analyzes whether it would be beneficial to the 1.89 billion people in its community or if it would have adverse effects on them," the company said. "It also looks at whether people would be surprised if they knew the research was being conducted." 

Facebook also highlighted a July 2016 paper published by the company's Public Policy Research Manager and Research Management Lead that breaks down the company's Institutional Review Board (IRB) process.

"An explicit part of our research review process is understanding if there are consequences to the proposed research, and, if so, how we can mitigate them," the company said.

But Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said the process doesn't meet the standards applied to academic research.

"In this paper, Facebook is trying to look like they're being respectful of IRB protocol, but they're not," Grygiel said, noting that participants in academic studies typically sign consent forms.

Data firm exploited the "most invasive advertising model in the history of the world" 06:06

Facebook did not directly answer when asked if it believes teenagers are aware of, and consent to, research being done about their behavior, but it said, "We also disclose in our data policy that we conduct research and are public about the research we do (see for examples)." 

It elaborated: "We conduct surveys and research, test features in development, and analyze the information we have to evaluate and improve products and services, develop new products or features, and conduct audits and troubleshooting activities."

Still, Grygiel said that explanation doesn't seem to cover what the company did in Australia.

"The leaked research goes beyond this," Grygiel said. "Has Facebook engaged in other research of this kind for advertisers? If so, how often?"

Got news tips about digital privacy, social media or online marketing? Email this reporter at, or via his encrypted address, (PGP fingerprint: 4b97 34aa d2c0 a35d a498 3cea 6279 22f8 eee8 4e24). 

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