Was Facebook's Study Actually Unethical

Friday 27th February 2015 at 4:40pm by Richard Davey

Facebook for one week in 2012, manipulated the emotions of hundreds of thousands of its users and found that they would pass on happy or sad emotions. The experiment, for which researchers did not gain specific consent, has provoked criticism from users with privacy and ethical concerns this weekend since it has been pushed into the public's face by the general media. These studies are happening all the time, and depending on how they are conducted, do not pose any harm to its participants, and in some cases can even highlight underlying issues. For example, in a study I conducted on a set of social networks in 2008, I collected data on tens of thousands of pieces of personal information (not the information itself, but just the presence and context of this information). Users were kept anonymous, even though this information was in the public domain, but helped highlight the threats of having this information publicly accessible, hinted to the underlying reasons as to why users were allowing this information to be public, and also highlighted potential cases of psychological, physical and sexual abuse among the candidates.

Moving on back to the study conducted by Facebook, this was legal in the eyes of the law, since consent was gained, although was not explicit for this study.

I can safely assume that myself among others in the direct media have not read the actual study and have only read interpretations and extracts, so can only make assumptions.

The study does not say that users were told of their participation in the experiment, which researchers said was conducted by computers so that they saw no posts. This was likely so that the results were not skewed by the candidate's knowledge that they were being monitored, and no posts were viewed. However, in order to make this study more moral I believe that some human intervention should (or may already) have been taken. This could still have been kept anonymous to protect the subjects within the sample groups, but would have ensured that no unnecessary harm was inflicted. I'm referring to ensuring that users who were being shown more negative posts, were not so emotionally induced that they become a threat to others or themselves.

Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University, told the Atlantic. "It's ethically okay from the regulations perspective, but ethics are kind of social decisions. There's not an absolute answer. And so the level of outrage that appears to be happening suggests that maybe it shouldn't have been done... I'm still thinking about it and I'm a little creeped out too."

Many people are taking these researcher's comments in the wrong context. I don't believe she was 'creeped out' by the study, but by the results it gave and the implication that social media holds control over peoples emotions and can be used as a tool to manipulate feelings on a deeper subconscious level.

Sources: The Independant, the Atlantic


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