Facebook’s Unethical Research Project
Facebook has apparently conducted a “massive” psychological experiment and published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). The study sought to manipulate the emotional responses of 689,000 Facebook users by controlling the types of content that appeared on their feeds in order to see whether or not emotional traits can be “transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.”
When a person signs up for a Facebook account, they check a box that says they have read and agree with Facebook’s Data Use Policy. Buried within these pages of text is a little nugget explaining that one of the reasons they will use data collected from users is “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”
According to PNAS’s policies, they require authors to obtain informed consent from study participants. The study author, an employee of Facebook, claims that the Data Use Policy constitutes informed consent, and it seems PNAS accepted that argument. It is a highly disturbing move because, as far as I can tell, the Data Use Policy does not come anywhere close to the kind of informed consent researchers are usually required to obtain when conducting research using human participants.
Since the release of the Belmont Report in 1978, researchers working in the US with human participants have been required to follow certain ethical guidelines. These guidelines were necessary because of horrendous experimental studies like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment. The Belmont Report laid out a set of principles that include respect for persons, beneficence (avoid harm, do good for participants), and justice (fair treatment of participants). In order to follow these principles, the Report requires that researchers obtain informed consent, provide an assessment of risks and benefits, and carefully and ethically select participants. Typically, the ethical standards of a proposed study are evaluated by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is usually made up of a committee of researchers within an institution who weigh the risks and benefits of potential research.
What’s unethical about this research is that it doesn’t appear that Facebook actually obtained informed consent. The claim in the paper is that the very vague blanket data use policy constitutes informed consent, but if we look at the typical requirements for obtaining informed consent, it becomes very clear that their policy falls way short. The typical requirements for informed consent include:
- Respect for the autonomy of individual research participants
- Fully explain the purposes of the research that people are agreeing to participate in in clear, jargonless language that is easy to understand
- Explain the expected duration of the study
- Describe the procedures that will happen during the study
- Identify any experimental protocols that may be used
- Describe any potential risks and benefits for participation
- Describe how confidentiality will be maintained
- A statement acknowledging that participation is completely voluntary, that a participant may withdraw participation at any time for any or no reason, and that any decision not to continue participating will incur no loss of benefits or other penalty.
The very broad Facebook Data Use Policy does not do these things. It is a blanket “data collection and usage” policy that they claim covers any and all research they conduct. But their data policy does not meet the requirements for informed consent laid out by the Belmont Report. Participants were never notified of their participation in this particular study. They were never given the opportunity to withdraw from participation. They were never told the risks versus benefits of participating. They were not told what procedures or experimental protocols would be used. In essence, the Facebook Data Usage Policy does not respect persons, and there was no oversight over whether they were beneficent and just.
Just as an example of why this could be problematic, let’s say this research was conducted on a person with severe depression. If that person does not know that they are being subjected to an experiment about human emotions on Facebook, where their emotional state is being intentionally manipulated in positive and negative ways, they do not have the opportunity to opt out of the research. A person with severe depression could potentially have very different risks for participating in such research than someone who does not experience depression. Without knowing they are being manipulated, a person with severe depression could be harmed by participating in this research because it could worsen their depression. How is this person to know based on Facebook’s Data Use Policy that such an experiment is being conducted?
Or, if we want to look at biomedical research, which is the kind of research that inspired the Belmont Report, Facebook’s policy is analogous to going to a hospital, signing a form that says any data collected about your stay could be used to help improve hospital services, and then unknowingly participating in a research project where psychiatrists are intentionally pissing off everyone around you to see if you also get pissed off, and then publishing their findings in a scientific journal rather than using it to improve services. Do you feel that you were informed about being experimented on by signing that form?
To be clear, I am not against Facebook collecting data about usage of their services in order to improve or try out new services. But that’s not the issue here. They went beyond the benign collecting of site usage data and went into actively experimenting on people to produce scientific knowledge based on the manipulations of people’s emotions without their consent. This kind of thing would never pass IRB ethics approval, and it’s really disturbing that a journal like PNAS would publish these findings with such a lack of ethical oversight.
h/t to biogeo for tipping us off to this story.
Updated June 28, 2014 @ 20:42 Eastern Time: Here’s a link, again from biogeo in the comments, to a criticism of the actual methods and conclusions of the study for those who may be interested.