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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?