Facebook’s psychological experiment was unethical

Jessica Lee, Editor-in-Chief

All psychological experiments need to follow basic ethical guidelines. The Facebook emotional manipulation study failed to do so.

For one week in 2012, Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer and Cornell University researchers Jamie Guillory and Jeffrey Hancock manipulated the News Feed of 689,003 Facebook users for a psychological experiment. The researchers published their study in an academic journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) earlier this year.

The experiment tested whether a person could influence someone’s mood without direct in-person interaction and without both parties’ awareness.

Two parallel experiments were run: one in which the subject’s friends’ positive emotional content in the subject’s
News Feed was reduced and another in which the negative emotional content in the subject’s News Feed was reduced.

The subject’s emotions were determined based on certain words in their posts. Positive and negative words were defined by the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) text analysis program.

The paper points out that no text was seen by the researchers so there was no violation of privacy.

All subjects who view Facebook in English were subject to being randomly selected — a violation of the ethical guideline that participation should be voluntary. The research paper states that Facebook’s Data Use Policy in its generic click-through agreement was the users’ form of consent. The Facebook policy at the time of the experimentation, however, did not state that the information users posted could potentially be used for research purposes. The statement that Facebook could use users’ information “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement” was added in May 2012 — four months after the experiment.

“It’s unethical because those people did not know they were in this experiment,” AP Psychology teacher Lana Gentry said.

“The people have the right to know if they are a part of an [experiment],” senior Jacque Lynn said.

By failing to inform participants prior to the experiment, the researchers failed to adhere to the ethical guideline of describing risks to potential subjects and also failed to ensure no harm was done.

With a large number of subjects, there was a possibility that some of the participants suffered depression. The World Mental Health Survey in 2012 that was conducted in 17 countries found that one in 20 people had a period of depression.

“[The researchers] did not send a letter to the [subjects] saying we just did this research, this is what we were doing, and these are the results,” Gentry said. “For it to be a secret in that the participants didn’t sign up and say okay, it breaks all ethical rules for psychology research. You’re not supposed to emotionally hurt somebody, and they might have. You don’t know who’s suffering from depression.”

“Stuff might happen,” sophomore Jeron Lee said. “[Subjects] might commit suicide. They might be depressed. If the researchers were going to change something, they should have told [participants] first.”

As the subjects still don’t know about their participation in the experiment, researchers also did not follow the ethical guideline of providing results and interpretations to participants.

Kramer justified the experiment and responded to criticism in a Facebook post.

“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” Kramer said. “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.”

Kramer also emphasizes how tiny the potential effects on subjects were but does acknowledge how the benefits from the experiment may not justify all of the anxiety over the research.

“The actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it,” Kramer said.

Regardless of how small of an impact on the subjects, however, it’s important to emphasize that there was an impact. Psychological researchers need to realize that participants need to be treated with respect and that the well-being of subjects outweighs the potential scientific benefits. The Facebook manipulation incident was not ethical in that sense.

Kramer has stated, though, that the reaction to the paper will be considered while working to improve internal review practices.