Bioethics Blogs

Facebook’s Emotion Experiment: Implications for Research Ethics

Several aspects of a recently published experiment conducted by Facebook have received wide media attention, but the study also raises issues of significance for the ethical review of research more generally. In 2012, Facebook entered almost 700,000 users – without their knowledge – in a study of “massive-scale emotional contagion.” Researchers manipulated these individuals’ newsfeeds by decreasing positive or negative emotional content, and then examined the emotions expressed in posts. Readers’ moods were affected by the manipulation. Of the three authors, two worked at Cornell University at the time of the research; all three are social scientists. 

The study raises several critical questions. Did it violate ethical standards of research? Should such social media company studies be reviewed differently than at present? Did the journal publishing the study proceed appropriately?

Federal regulations concerning the conduct of research technically apply only to certain categories of government-funded research and follow ethical principles closely paralleling those of the Helsinki Declaration. Requirements include prospective review by an institutional review board (IRB) and (with some exceptions) subjects’ informed consent. Institutions conducting federally-funded research indicate whether they will apply these guidelines to all research they conduct. These guidelines have become widely-used ethical standards.

Was Facebook obligated to follow these ethical guidelines, since the study was privately funded? At the very least, it seems that the behavioral scientists involved should have followed them, since doing so is part of the professional code of conduct of their field.

The absence of consent is a major concern. Facebook initially said that the subjects consented to research when signing up for Facebook; but in fact the company altered its data use agreement only four months after the study to include the possibility of research.

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.