Ethical implications of Facebook’s psychological study on 700,000 people

Phone with facebook app open

The 2014 Facebook experiment, Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks broke many ethical values through the way it was conducted, researched, and closed as a study.

Facebook has publicly broken two of the ACS Code of Ethics rules. The first code of ethics would be the ‘Primacy of the Public Interest’ (Australian Computer Society. n.d.) where the interests of the public will be placed above those of person, business or sectional interests. As stated by Kamder (Arthur, C., & Swain, J. 2014) “It [Facebook] is a for-profit company with its own needs, and its own agenda, and will affect what users see at its own whim.” Facebook is placing it’s business needs above the interest of the public. “Facebook didn’t give users informed consent” Grimmelmann stated (Arthur, C., & Swaine, J. 2014) as the lack of informed consent turned into a “real scandal”.

“Facebook didn’t give users informed consent”

The second code of ethics from the ACS that has been broken would be the Enhance of Quality of Life (Australian Computer Society. n.d.). Facebook should have strived to enhance the quality of life for those affected by the work. E.g. The people who were subjected to negative-feeling posts should have had a follow-up or debrief to rectify any mental instabilities the individual could be facing. Facebook didn’t put the word “research” in their data use policy until May 2012. This was 4 months after the emotion manipulation study. The APA does have guidelines for this so-called “deceptive research”:

(c) Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data. (See also Standard 8.08, Debriefing.)

Behnke, Dr. S. (2009).

Towards the end of the experiment, “did Facebook tell the user-subjects that their News Feeds had been altered for the sake of research? If so, the study never mentions it.” (Meyer, R. 2014). Further proof that Facebook did not adhere to the ACS Code of Ethics. For an example of debriefing and ensuring Enhance of Quality of Life, viewing the web television series, Mind Field, by Michael Stevens can give you a clear image. Michael will sit with the participants after the study and answer any questions they might have, as well as assuring them that everyone/thing is safe (see Season 1, Episode 5: Freedom of Choice).

“did Facebook tell the user-subjects that their News Feeds had been altered for the sake of research? If so, the study never mentions it.”

Researcher Max Masnick said, “As a researcher, you don’t get an ethical free pass because a user checked a box next to a link to a website’s terms of use.” (Arthur, C., & Swaine, J. 2014) referring to Facebook’s Data Policy. “Based on the information in the PNAS paper, I don’t think these researchers met this ethical obligation.”. This further solidifies the implications and impeachment against participants ethical rights.

Since this incident, a new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law came into effect on 25th May, 2018 being passed by the European Parliament in April 2016. It took two years for government legislation to be effective to the public, and prior to that Facebook took 2 years (2012 – 2014) to conduct and publish their experiment. Companies are now moving quicker with the data they have and acting upon before the government, or legal bodies have control to create laws and protection for the people. Since the new GDPR, luckily people are now getting more transparency in privacy protection and are becoming more aware of how their data and information is being stored and/or used.

In conclusion, the 2014 Facebook psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 people had a lot of backlash from journalists, researchers and the general public alike. In hindsight for future experiments and data use of company’s client information, this experiment is a great resource case study for how ethical values are being transferred onto the internet.

References (APA style)

Arthur, C., & Swaine, J. (2014). Facebook faces criticism amid claims it breached ethical guidelines with study.The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/30/facebook-internet

Australian Computer Society (n.d.) ACS Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.acs.org.au/content/dam/acs/acs-documents/Code-of-Ethics.pdf

Behnke, Dr. S. (2009). Reading the Ethics Code more deeply. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/04/ethics.aspx

Kramer, A., Guillory, J., Hancock, J. (2014). Emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2014, 111 (24) 8788-8790; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111 Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full

Meyer, R. (2014, June 28). Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/everything-we-know-about-facebooks-secret-mood-manipulation-experiment/373648/

Vsauce. (2017, February 8). Freedom of Choice – Mind Field (Ep 5). [Video file]. Retrieved fromĀ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmI7NnMqwLQ

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