Bioethics Blogs

Issues of Research Ethics in the Facebook ‘Mood Manipulation’ Study: The Importance of Multiple Perspectives


By: Michelle Broaddus, Ph.D.

A new study using Facebook data to study “emotional contagion,” and the ensuing backlash of its publication offers the opportunity to examine several ethical principles in research. One of the pillars of ethically conducted research is balancing the risks to the individual participants against the potential benefits to society or scientific knowledge. While the study’s effects were quite small, the authors argue that “given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook, even small effects can have large aggregated consequences.” However, participants were not allowed to give informed consent, which constitutes a risk of the research and the major source of the backlash.

The ethical issues are complicated by the lack of federal funding, and associated lack of required compliance with federal regulations, the rights of private companies to adjust their services, the fact that this research could conceivably still have ethically been conducted with a waiver of consent, and the possible ethical obligation that powerful private companies might have to contributing to scientific knowledge and not just financial gain. Reporting on the study has also often used inflammatory and misleading language, which has ethical implications as well. Issues of research ethics should involve constant questioning and discussions, especially as research evolves in response to extremely rapidly changing technologies. As this study and its associated backlash have demonstrated, these discussions should involve perspectives from participants, researchers, editors, reviewers, and science journalists.

For a more in-depth discussion of the ethical issues raised in the Facebook study, please read the full text of Broaddus’ piece.

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.