UPDATE: Cornell has denied that any federal or outside funding played a role in Hancock’s study.

Ithaca, N.Y. — Statements from the U.S. Army have added to mounting questions about a controversial 2012 Facebook study with ties to a Cornell professor and researcher.

The study, published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” and coauthored by Cornell’s Dr. Jeffrey T. Hancock, altered the news feeds of nearly 700,000 Facebook users without their knowledge to examine how positive and negative statuses altered their moods.

Dr. Jeffrey Hancock participated in a Facebook study that manipulated news feeds. (Courtesy of Cornell University)
Dr. Jeffrey Hancock participated in a Facebook study that manipulated news feeds. (Courtesy of Cornell University)

Facebook and now Cornell have caught flak for a long list of ethical questions raised by site users and journalists, many who deemed the research project “creepy” and invasive.

Last night, Mashable published a story about the study’s links to the military. According to Mashable:

On Wednesday, an Army spokesperson told Mashable that someone at Cornell University sent a proposal in 2008 to the U.S. military for funding. Though the army never funded it, the spokesperson said, that proposal was the same Facebook emotion-manipulation study of 2012 that has caused so much drama for the social network in 2014.

In its June 10 press release announcing the study, Cornell initially noted that it had received funding from the Army Research Office. But a month later, as controversy over the study began to mount, the Cornell Chronicle amended the press release to say the study had not received any external funding. Now, an army spokesperson tells us his organization has seen the proposal before — but Cornell’s not talking.

Hancock received Department of Defense funding in 2009 for a paper titled Modeling Discourse and Social Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes. The funding is part of the DoD’s Minerva Initiative, which funds university research “to improve DoD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the U.S.,” the Guardian reports.

The DoD’s initiative is currently funding another study at Cornell, called Tracking Critical-Mass Outbreaks in Social Contagions. This study will examine the “tipping point” in social media conversations surrounding four recent global events — the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests.

Cornell’s role in the 2012 mood manipulation study is still unclear, though a statement released by the University Monday said neither Hancock nor then-university affiliated researcher Jamie Guillory, who was involved in the study, had direct access to the collection of private data.

The university has declined further comment to The Ithaca Voice. A spokesperson for Cornell said, “As soon as I have any additional information to share, I will let you know.”

UPDATED: After this story was published, John Carberry, Cornell’s Media Relations director, released the following statement to The Ithaca Voice:

While Professor Hancock, like many researchers, has conducted work funded by the federal government during his career, at no time did Professor Hancock or his postdoctoral associate Jamie Guillory request or receive outside funding to support their work on this PNAS paper. Initial wording in an article and press releases generated by Cornell University that indicated outside funding sources was an unfortunate error missed during the editorial review process. That error was corrected as soon as it was brought to our attention.

Also, at no time prior to his work on this paper did Professor Hancock seek federal funding for this work, or any work studying emotional contagion on Facebook. Professor Hancock did submit a research grant proposal to the Department of Defense’s MINERVA program in 2008 to study language use in support of US efforts to engage social scientists on national security issues, but that proposal was not funded. A similar research project was funded in 2009 by the National Science Foundation. Neither project involved studying emotional contagion or Facebook in any way.

For the PNAS work Carberry addresses, titled “Experimental Evidence of Mass-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks,” the Cornell researchers examined data from the Facebook study.

While Cornell’s statement addresses circulating claims about funding, ethical concerns raised about the study remain contentious. As Carberry previously told The Ithaca Voice on behalf of the university, “Facebook did the study entirely.”

Jeff Stein contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the study as titled “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” which is the name of the organization that published “Experimental Evidence of Mass-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.”