Ethics Strike Three And Four Against Facebook In Its Creepy Mood Manipulation Study

Facebook is so out.

"Meh. Look at this neat picture of my dog!"

“Meh. Look at this neat picture of my dog!”

Ethics Strike One was the research itself, using its own, trusting users as guinea pigs in a mad scientist experiment to determine whether their moods could be manipulated by secretly managing the kind of posts they read from Facebook friends.

Ethics Strike Two was the lack of its subjects informed consent for the study, violating the basic standards of human subject research. A boilerplate user agreement that makes a vague reference to using data for “research” in no way meets the requirements of informed consent for this kind of study.

This brings us to Ethics Strike Three.  In justifying the legality and ethics of the research, Facebook’s researchers explained that leave to perform such experiments was consistent with the user agreement (See Strike Two):  “[the experiment] was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.” As I pointed out above and in my previous post on this topic, this isn’t informed consent as the research field and various ethics codes define it. But even if it was, this statement is a lie.

In 2011 when the experiment was conducted, which is what matters in determining legal and ethical consent, the company’s user policy didn’t reference “research.” The reference in the user agreement to using information “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement” wasn’t included until May 2012, which the company itself highlighted in a comparison against the prior September 2011 version. Even if the language in the fine print user agreement was sufficient to establish informed consent by a Facebook user to have his head messed around with for the amusement of Facebook researchers—which it was not—it didn’t exist in time for the unwitting subjects to “agree” to it. Facebook added it after the fact, then lied in a public statement by claiming otherwise.

Strike Four? Facebook didn’t have an age filter in its research protocols, meaning minors may have been included as guinea pigs—another blatant research ethics violation. Three strikes, however, is all that is necessary

At least, that’s what I would have thought. However, public interest (or understanding?) regarding this serious breach of trust by Facebook has been minimal. Even here on Ethics Alarms, where I would assume the readership represents the upper level of ethics understanding and sensitivity, the original post about Facebook’s abuse of its users attracted the interest of few readers and only a few commenters. Similarly in the news media: mention of the experiment and its ethical implications was minimal and fleeting.

Facebook entices citizens to use its platform to reveal every aspect of the inner and outer lives, and now we know that in doing so, we are regarded as inviting scientists to secretly control what we see in order to control what we feel and think. Is that really acceptable to Facebook users, who are a fair representation of the U.S. population? Does this mean that they are, in fact, willing to be manipulated by unknown strangers as long as they can post selfies and dumb quizzes for their pseudo-friends? Does this mean that current day Americans are so submissive that they will surrender basic rights and human dignity in exchange for free services, no matter how superfluous or trivial? Or does it mean that most Facebook users are too ignorant or dim to understand what is going on?

The lack of interest and indignation by the Facebook’s victims is more alarming than the unethical research itself.

Sources: Daily Caller, Think Progress, Popular Mechanics, WSJ


13 thoughts on “Ethics Strike Three And Four Against Facebook In Its Creepy Mood Manipulation Study

  1. I resisted the herd when Facebook became the thing in my area, and I’ve never really regretted it. Both it and Google want to own my data. I was only a little surprised at the story, because they have the full arrogance of being modern robber barons, and we are their manipulated consumers.

    As to why the public isn’t reacting is that they have become brainwashed like Stockholm syndrone to LOVE giving up their privacy for shiny beads. The adults and parents didn’t think about the consequences when it started and now we have a younger generation who doesn’t even understand what privacy is. I’d hoped Snowden would have worked as a wake-up call but that data, our eyeballs are just too profitable for any internal checks on this to be effective. Sadly, European bodies are waking up faster than the land of the free. We’re still so afraid and unwilling to accept that life includes some risk that we hand over our freedoms to unrestricted bodies like gov’t and business and ask with a tremor if they want more. Orwell was off by thirty years.

  2. If a research psychologist pulled a stunt like this, he would likely lose his license. His research, actually, would never be approved by the ethics committee.

  3. It’s obviously wrong. Very few people seem to think so, though. Since I started to comment on this on Facebook when people bring it up, I’ve been dubbed ‘hypersensitive’ and/or ‘paranoid’. No one gets it. It’s a ‘so what?’ storm out there…

  4. Seriously I was duped by family and close friends to sign up to the demon known as Facebook. Yep, locked it down tight. No one could get in unless I opened my “door” or “wall” or whatever the demon stated. Ah, it took about 3 days to get invaded. No one not even Facebook tells folks that nothing is sacred when it comes to “visiting” with family and close friends. I deleted my account. Then the demon says “it will take 2 weeks to close your account”. Yeah, let’s talk chocolate enough and I will want a good ol Hershey bar….Facebook….yeah, well…just say invasive is not even the word. Ethical. Not in the least. But that is what they need to continue to put the sheep on the rail cars….if one more person says “well I read that on Facebook””…I will throw up the chocolate…

  5. Facebook’s mood experiment is appalling, but not surprising.

    There’s an analogy I like to apply to Facebook and other “free” internet services. If you’re not paying for the barn or the hay in your stall or the food in your trough, you’re not really getting all these products for free: you ARE the product.

    If you’re on Facebook, you’re just another pig on its way to becoming bacon. They’re selling you in slices.

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