How the Facebook study became an ethics debate

Facebook’s recent study of the emotional behavior of some of its 1.3 billion users without their knowledge or consent has raised ethical concerns for academic research. When the study’s results were published in a science journal, people raised questions of privacy rights and research ethics.

The Facebook study has stirred up much controversy in terms of ethics. (Credit: Josh Constine)

The Facebook study has stirred up much controversy in terms of ethics. (Credit: Josh Constine)

“This is just the latest in a string of incidents that have raised questions about whether the privacy rights of Facebook’s nearly 1.3 billion users are being trampled by the company’s drive to dissect data and promote behavior that could help sell more online advertising,” reported the Associated Press in “Facebook Faces Inquiry over Psych Experiment: New Feed Content Manipulated for 700,000 Users” published in Daily Herald, July 3, 2014. British, Irish and French regulators are investigating the case to see if any privacy laws were violated.

Emotional study

For one week in January 2012, Facebook allowed data scientists to write an algorithm that manipulated how many emotionally positive or negative posts appeared on the news feed section of 700,000 Facebook users. Researchers were testing a thesis on whether people’s moods could be shared and spread based on what they were reading. The study found that people who received more negative posts were more likely to post negative updates about their lives. These findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2014.

When the journal article appeared, people learned that this study had been conducted on them without their consent. Articles appeared in the New York Times and The Atlantic condemning the study and the treatment of Facebook users as “laboratory rats.” What affected people the most was the manipulation of their emotions. Ironically, the quick and fierce reaction to the intrusive study proved the researchers’ theory.

At issue is “informed consent”

All medical experiments and other forms of scientific research that involve human subjects must obtain those people’s informed consent. Informed consent is when the subject understands the parameters, limits, consequences, risks and benefits of the study and then gives his or her approval. History is full of examples of people being experimented on without their knowledge, including the U.S. government’s Tuskegee syphilis experiments on rural black men from 1932 to 1972 and the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells for cancer research without her consent.

While being made to read bad news all day, as in the Facebook case, is not as drastic as these examples, it still goes to the core of informed consent. Facebook covers its tracks by announcing in its Terms of Use, for which every user is required to click to say they’ve read them and consent to them, allows for “internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Facebook COO apologizes… sort of

As a for-profit company, Facebook has no obligation to adhere to scientific principles the way researchers do. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the “poor communication” to users about the study, but did not apologize for the study having been conducted. Facebook employs data mining and data analysis researchers who look for ways to cater advertising to its users. It works. In 2013, Facebook’s revenues rose 55 percent to $7.9 billion.

Journal admits ethical lapse

After the intense backlash following news of the study, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences regretted how the study was handled. “It is nevertheless a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out,” wrote Inder Verma, the journal’s editor in chief, reported by the Associated Press and posted in “Facebook Study May Have Violated Principles Of Academic Research, Journal Says” in Huffington Post, July 3, 2014.

Research ethics

The Facebook example has scientists reviewing their ethical conduct when performing scientific studies. In Chronicle of Higher Education, Paul Voosen wrote in the July 1, 2014, article “In Backlash Over Facebook Research Scientists Risk Loss of Valuable Resource:” “The response to the study…has raised credible criticisms about whether Internet users should be informed about experiments that test profound questions about human behavior.”

In a commentary for NBC News posted June 30, 2014, Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., a professor and founder of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, said: “When entities feel entitled to experiment on human beings without informed consent, without accountability to anyone but themselves, that’s when bad things happen to research subjects. And it’s now clear that if we don’t insist on greater regulatory oversight of their ‘research’ you are likely to be next.”

For more information on ethics and ethical research, visit Questia’s library on Ethics. 

If you’re a Facebook user, do you think the study was a violation of privacy or a legitimate way to do business?

1 reply
  1. Larry (Lorenzo Bernardotto - Italy). says:

    As a Facebook user, I think it’s a violation of privacy. Our privacy is an indisputable right. There have been two “historical revolutions” about the human rights: the English Revolution of 1689 and the American Revolution of 1776. On the contrary, they should protect our privacy against the business. They can’t play with our soul, our feelings, only to do business. I wonder: “Where are we going?”. Intelligent people, more or less, knows how to defend themselves, but, the weak ones? But this problem isn’t only about Facebook, it also concerns other agencies, such as TV, supermarkets, and so on, for example. As an Italian, I think: “Stop these psychological studies”.


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