Facebook Steps into Informed Consent Ethical Scandal

FacebookLast week was abuzz with discussions of the ethical issues surrounding an emotional contagion study recently published by researchers led by a team at Facebook. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a paper was published entitled, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.” It explained that Facebook intentionally subjected nearly 689,003 Facebook users to manipulation of their feeds. Lead researchers on the team were Kramera, Guillory and Hancock from the Core Data Science Team from Facebook, who worked in conjunction with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California and Departments of Communication and Information Science at Cornell University.

In the words of the report:

In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and non- verbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people. 

Ever since, headlines around the globe were astir with the news, and included outright accusations. Note this one from ZDNet: Facebook: Unethical, untrustworthy, and now downright harmful. 

Informed Consent?

This recent Facebook activity has once again raised the issue of informed consent related to the Internet. Given Facebook’s permissive privacy policy that apparently makes their surveillance and altering of “their” content, such activities is conducted legally. Ethics classes in the behavioral sciences are likely to be using this event as one of the most relevant example of how challenging these issues can be. 

What are your thoughts about altering social media participation in the name of research? 

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3 comments on “Facebook Steps into Informed Consent Ethical Scandal

  1. People seem to be increasingly numb to the loss of privacy online and otherwise – yet legally we as professionals are being required to be ever more vigilant. I wish I had a dollar for every client who has been frustrated by the inability to conduct an occasional phone session when the car is in the shop, or the road conditions are poor, or by my refusal to conduct discussions by text or sessions by Skype or other. Now, we find we are all perpetual guinea pigs for social science experiments. ((OO)) as they emoticode on FB.

  2. Is there any way to find out if I was included in that study. I had not been using Facebook very often until the past couple of months when I started being sent posts from people I know that were very pleasing to me and made me smile. I usually re-posted them. I also started receiving very pleasant happy making posts on my feed from places/people I don ‘t know. Suddenly, I was spending a much greater amount of time on Facebook, and I started feeling compelled to check my feed several times a day. Previously, I have been highly critical of the epidemic of human addiction to electronic social media. Then suddenly, I am sucked in. Is this one the reasons Facebook got involved in this study? A big boon for it, as by product.
    Rozanne Miller

    • Rozanne,I can understand your reaction, but am unfamiliar with Facebooks protocols or customer service policies. Most studies do have contact addresses for you to use, but this may have been handled differently, given the circumstances. I'd suggest you go to their website and look there. You might also find other people online who are reacting to what happened on Facebook.

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