Is Facebook Experimenting On You?

Facebook is messing with your emotions! Let me explain, last week Facebook published the results of a study where they tried to manipulate peoples’ Facebook Wall in an attempt to provoke either a negative or positive emotional response. In this article, Nathan Palmer discusses this study, questions its ethical standing, and explores the fundamentals of research ethics.

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Facebook is manipulating your emotions. That was the gist of the news stories that broke this week after Facebook published a study on emotional contagion. As Dr. Jenny Davis said in her excellent summary of the study,

  • The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects. They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in fact, Facebook has conducted hundreds of experiments on it’s 1.3 billion users with almost no limitations.

For a study about emotions, it sure has created firestorm of emotions itself. The fiercest outrage is coming from those who believe that the study was unethical. Let’s take a second and explore the claims that this study was unethical. To do that we will first need to review how ethical research is conducted and what the basic rules are for ethical research[1].

Rule #1: Do No Harm

Ethical research does not harm its subjects. While this obviously means you can’t physically harm your subjects, it also means that your research shouldn’t cause psychological, legal, social, or economic harm (check out this University of Virginia webpage for a detailed description of each of these). Before any ethical study can be conducted the researchers must first ensure that they have minimized any risk of harming human subjects.

Did the Facebook study harm people? Well we don’t really know the answer to that and it’s possible we never will. Does exposing people to more negative emotions constitute harm? That’s debatable, but keep in mind that we don’t know what the people who were exposed to these conditions did in the rest of their lives. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where someone who experienced these negative emotions goes on to take it out on their community. But did Facebook cause this? The answer to that question would require more evidence than we currently have to answer.

Rule #2: Informed Consent

Before you can conduct research on someone you have to tell them what you’re about to do and ask them if they want to participate. It’s as simple as that. This is often done by giving potential participants a sheet of paper that describes the study, discusses the risks they may face, and explains that they have the right to stop the study at any time.

Facebook argues that it did have informed consent because every user has to accept a “data use policy” on their terms of service agreement before they can create an account. However, how many of you read all the fine print before you click accept on one of these legal documents? It’s called informed consent, so if the majority of the participants are not informed about what they are getting themselves into, can it really be considered consent?

Rule #3: Voluntary Participation

You always have the right to not participate in an ethical study. Furthermore, you always have the right to end your participation in a study at any time. You cannot force people or trick people into participating in your study. It’s as simple as that.

Technically any Facebook user can discontinue use at anytime and even go so far as to deactivate their account. But here’s the problem: if you don’t know you are participating in a study can you really participate in it voluntarily? In this way rule #3 is contingent on rule #2.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

At this point you are probably wondering, are there research referees? I mean, who throws the flag when there has been a research foul? The simple answer is yes, there are research referees, but academics renamed them the “institutional review board” IRB because we hate anything that sounds clever or easy to understand.

At every major academic institution there is an IRB that convenes to review research proposals. Before research can be done on human subjects, the IRB must ensure that the three rules above have not been broken and that the study is safe, ethical, and worth any cost the human subjects might endure. And that is the problem with the Facebook study. Despite initial claims to the opposite, it turns out that the authors of the study only sought IRB oversight AFTER the study was conducted. This fact alone makes the study unethical and had this been done at a university or any other firm that receives money from the federal government, they would have almost certainly lost all of their federal funding.

Research ethics are important. The history of science is littered with researchers willing to harm, exploit, and deceive their human subjects. Ultimately each Facebook user will have to decide if these hundreds of studies are unethical and then decide if they want to continue their relationship with the company.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What’s your assessment of this research? Was it ethical or unethical? Use evidence to make your argument.
  2. Imagine you want to do a survey about classroom cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty on your campus. What potential ethical issues would that bring up? What are the potential harms for a study like this?
  3. Watch this short video about the Zimbardo Prison Experiment. While there were many ethical violations in this study, let’s focus on rule #1. How was this experiment violating the “do no harm” rule?
  4. What do you think about the fact that Facebook is interested in how it can better manipulate your emotions? Do you feel that this is an ethical pursuit? Explain your answer.

  1. Obviously we can’t go into every aspect of ethical research here. Instead let’s focus on three of the biggest rules of ethical research.  ↩