Facebook in ethics face-off


Sue Buckley and John Kleinsman 

The publication of a research paper that investigated the "emotional contagion" of 700,000 randomly selected Facebook users received extensive publicity recently because of the methods used by the researchers.

Two groups of Facebook users had their news feeds manipulated with a view to assessing its impact on their emotions. In one group, exposure to friends' positive emotional content in their News Feeds was reduced; in another group exposure to friends' negative emotional content was reduced. The effect on the participants was then measured by examining the emotionality of their status updates.

In explaining their project, the researchers stated that they used word-counting software, which meant that original posts were not viewed by them. As such, they considered that it was consistent with Facebook's Data Use Policy to which all users agree. They further claimed that the Data Use Policy precluded the need to seek additional consent from the study group. In addition, it was later claimed that as the experiment was conducted by Facebook for internal purposes, there was no obligation to "conform to the provisions of the Common Rule" which protect human research subjects.

However, there has been widespread questioning and criticism on the grounds that the researchers failed to obtain adequate informed consent from the unknowing participants. In response, one of the research authors appealed to the need for the research to take place: "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." He also stated: "... our goal was never to upset anyone. I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused."1 However, he conveniently fails to address the issue of informed consent.

So, if the intention of research is never to upset anyone, if there is little reason to expect that it might be harmful and if there is a good reason for undertaking it, why is it important to gain informed consent? In answering this question it must be remembered that the Facebook researchers were not just observing behaviour but were specifically aiming to manipulate the emotions of the participants by an intentional intervention. As one commentator noted: "The study harmed participants, because it changed their mood".2

It is a well-established principle within research ethics that any research involving an intervention requires fully informed consent and should be overseen by an ethics committee independent from both the researchers and the organisation or company instigating the research. This means that participants should (1) know they are being experimented on; (2) be given clear information about the research; and (3) be informed of both the risks and benefits. The only exception to this would be in circumstances where, for various reasons, participants are unable to give consent, in which case consent must be sought from someone legally entitled to provide consent for them.

The history of 'informed consent' in research goes back to the Nuremberg Code of 1947, developed after the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War. These trials exposed research by Nazi doctors on Jews which included the murder and torture of the participants, all done without consent. Since that Code was developed there have been numerous and serious instances of unethical research where consent was not obtained, including the 'Unfortunate Experiment' at National Women's Hospital in Auckland where the conventional treatment for carcinoma in situ (CIS) was withheld from some women without their knowledge. It is worth noting that the researcher, Dr Herbert Green, had no intention of harming anyone and felt it was important to test his theory that women were being over-treated.

Even if Dr Herbert Green's theory had been right, the fact remains that his research would still have been unethical because informed consent was not obtained. Participants in research always have a right to know the risks they are exposed to and, even more fundamentally, a right to know that they are involved in interventional research. There was also a lack of independent oversight of Green's research.

Research can never be judged to be ethical on the basis of its intended outcome alone. Neither does a good outcome justify an unethical research process. Good research is always ethical from its inception. No interventional research should ever be undertaken without informed consent. The Facebook research clearly went beyond benign, anonymous, observational monitoring, which meant it required informed consent. Neither was it subject to any sort of independent scrutiny. Even if it is true that the risks for the Facebook experiment were low, there is an important principle at stake here, which must be upheld.

In the same way that stealing is stealing no matter what amounts are involved, so we all have a right not to be experimented on without our knowledge whatever the nature of the research.

Sue Buckley is a researcher for The Nathaniel Centre and John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre

1. Kramer, Adam D.I. Facebook post, June 30th 2014. https://www.facebook.com/akramer/posts/10152987150867796
2. James Grimmelmann, professor of law at the University of Maryland, quoted in the Guardian, 30 June, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/30/facebook-emotion-study-breached-ethical-guidelines-researchers-say