Bioethics Blogs

Coming Face to Face with the New Normal in Internet Research

by Elizabeth Buchanan, PhD, Endowed Chair in Ethics, University of Wisconsin-Stout

On Thursday, October 30, PRIM&R will host a webinar, The Future of Internet Research: What We Can Learn from the Facebook Emotional Contagion Study, which will explore the Facebook emotional contagion study and some of the questions that it raised related to internet and social media research. In advance of that webinar, we are sharing different perspectives on the controversy. Last week, PRIM&R’s executive director, Elisa A. Hurley, PhD, explored the reasons for the public outcry, and in this week’s post, webinar presenter Elizabeth Buchanan, PhD, explains what the Facebook study can teach us about the “new normal” in internet research. 

When news of the Facebook contagion study hit, I was presenting a session on research ethics to the VOX-Pol summer school at Dublin City University. I had intended to discuss the Belfast Project as an example of social, behavioral, and educational research gone badly—indeed, this project had international intrigue, raised serious issues related to participant privacy and consent, and pushed research regulations to their limits. But, suddenly, with news of Facebook’s newsfeed manipulations, there was a hot new case in internet research to consider. The first responders were quick to call attention to the “creepiness” of the study (the name of the article itself might be responsible for the creepiness factor: “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”); those responses were quickly followed by questions about user/participant consent and the ethics of deception research. Initial reactions seemed to center around several points:

  • This research was definitely “wrong”—individuals should have been told about the 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.