Facebook Research and Ethics

Is there a breach of privacy?

By accepting Facebook’s data use policy, the social media site believes, its subscribers have legally agreed to participate in behavioral studies without further consent or even their knowledge, reports Kashmir Hill in Forbes.

In January 2012, as first reported in The New Scientist, Facebook employees rigged the news feeds of 689,003 subscribers, showing them either all positive or all negative images for a week and then judging how their emotions had been affected by the nature of their own posts.

"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," said Facebook researcher Adam Kramer.

Facebook staffers point to a positive outcome from their manipulation of subscribers, the finding that people do not become depressed about themselves when viewing good news about others, but, in fact, the opposite. "The fact that people were more emotionally positive in response to positive emotion updates from their friends stands in contrast to theories that suggest viewing positive posts by friends on Facebook may somehow affect us negatively," according to Facebook staff members.

The lack of ethical considerations and oversights at Facebook have disturbed some observers, one of whom said, “Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people.”

Behavioral researcher Dr. Max Masnick adds, “You don’t get an ethical free pass because a user checked a box next to a link to a website’s terms of use. The researcher is responsible for making sure all participants are properly consented. In many cases, study staff will verbally go through lengthy consent forms with potential participants, point by point. Researchers will even quiz participants after presenting the informed consent information to make sure they really understand. I don’t think these researchers met this ethical obligation."

Facebook says it does not understand the controversy. A Facebook spokesperson said, "This research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person's Facebook account. We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible. A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it's positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow. We carefully consider what research we do and have a strong internal review process. There is no unnecessary collection of people's data in  connection with these research initiatives."

But the issue of informed consent remains. University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann says, "Facebook didn't give users informed consent to allow them to decide whether to take part in the study, under US human subjects research. The study harmed participants. This is bad, even for Facebook."