Bioethics Blogs

A Bit of Historical Perspective on the Facebook Flap

IRBs and behavioral research are all over the news, as a result of a paper that manipulated the news feeds of 689,003 Facebook users.

[Kramer, Adam D. I., Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock. “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 24 (June 17, 2014): 8788–90. doi:10.1073/pnas.1320040111.]

Michelle Meyer has posted a detailed analysis of the regulatory context, explaining multiple ways a project like this could have been approved. She concludes that “so long as we allow private entities freely to engage in these practices, we ought not unduly restrain academics trying to determine their effects.”

[Meyer, Michelle N. “How an IRB Could Have Legitimately Approved the Facebook Experiment—and Why That May Be a Good Thing.” The Faculty Lounge, June 29, 2014.]

I have little to add to Meyer’s excellent post, except a bit of historical perspective. Psychological experiments—whether in the lab, in the field, or online—fall outside my main area of concern, but perhaps I can offer a few relevant points.

1. Psychological Field Experiments Have a Long History

Over at Slate, Katy Waldman presents the Facebook experiment as a human rights violation, quoting James Grimmelmann, who in turn claims that “informed consent [is] the ethical and legal standard for human subjects research.”

If that were true, we’d need to reconsider not only Facebook’s latest manipulation, but a line of research–social psychology field experiments–dating back roughly half a century, in which researchers put on some kind of a performance for unwitting subjects to see how they’d react.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.