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FACEBOOK: The Psychology Experiment You Consented to in FB's Terms of Service

Thursday, Jul. 17, 2014

Source: This is Public Health (Flickr)

For one week in 2012, half a million Facebook users took part in a massive psychological experiment aimed at discovering if emotions could be spread through social media. The problem? Users had no idea it was happening. It turns out Facebook routinely runs experiments on users; in fact every Facebook user has been a subject at some point, whether it be slight modifications in formatting or major feature changes.

Just about every Internet service does experiments, but this one altered users’ news feeds to highlight items with either positive or negative emotional content, and then measured if it affected the emotional content in each user’s future posts.

While it is agreed the experiment was legal, critics argue this type of testing crosses the line, particularly when consent is buried in a terms of service. Facebook researchers have taken to social media to apologize for the study, but the company’s official statement is that Facebook users agree to these types of experiments as part of the terms of service. Does Facebook need more explicit consent for this type of experiment? For all experiments?

  Kirk: The beauty in this unfortunate case is that it rests at the intersection of research ethics and business ethics. While every study involves influencing the subject's emotional state -- e.g. which color do people respond better to? -- this experiment went one step further by making emotional manipulation its sole purpose. The problem here is with the blanket consent that Facebook is hiding behind. While legally permissable, companies should act in the spirit of the law and ensure users know what they are getting into: especially with experiments that are this controversial. What right does Facebook have to know what I am feeling as I'm using their service? 

  Patrick: Let's not forget that Facebook is a for-profit company, offering a free service. We should all anticipate that Facebook will go to great lengths to monetize their product. A user's emotional state while using Facebook has direct implications for the amount of time they spend on the site and how interactive they are: both of which are critical to get companies to pay for advertising on Facebook. Yet there is still a concern that this experiment was beyond the pale: if emotions can spread through Facebook, can idealogies and political views as well? It's clear that the law is not just behind on regulating these emerging industries; it's also behind on regulating the experiments that shape their future.

Facebook Tinkers With Users' Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry (NY Times)

Facebook Researcher's Apology

A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center)


NEXT POST: When do startups have to grow up and embrace diversity?

Comments Comments

Rushi said on Jul 18, 2014
On the face of it, the Facebook exploited the intrinsic faith its users have on "honesty", some thing which seems to come easily along with non-personal nature of social media. But there is something to be said of the people who presented this case for discussion. The picture accompanying the case is itself misleading, designed to create negativity of a "psychological experiment". Thus, the guys who wrote and presented this case for discussion are themselves guilty of "manipulating" a response by giving an unconnected picture to link it with what FB did. As for manipulating emotions, be it social media or any sort of mass communications, is that not what it is basically intended to do? This particular one is simply perhaps validating some theories at FB and improving their strategies, a sort of market survey. Every one in any sort of public communications does it. While clearly specifying to FB users what was being dome, how different it is from what media, educationists, governments, and NGOs do? The reason why FB needs to be more transparent and explicit is the added responsibility which comes with sheer reach in terms of numbers, diversity, geographical spread of its users, and most being willing to share than what they may do in normal eye-ball communication. - Like - 4 people like this.
Patrick said on Jul 21, 2014
Rushi, that's an excellent point. I agree that the framing of the "study" was a misstep for Facebook; if anything because the lack of a consistent and upfront narrative created a void that was replaced with blog headlines. Nonetheless, the study goes beyond normal market research, I'd argue, in part because the findings were published an in academic setting claiming a development in social psychology. - Like - 2 people like this.
w+J said on Dec 9, 2014
why? - Like - 3 people like this.
shhhh!!!!!! said on Dec 10, 2014
this is a very long answer to a very easy question, its not illegal - Like - 2 people like this.
Adam said on Sep 28, 2015
?With great power, there must also come? great responsibility.? Just about every Internet service does experiments, but this one altered users? news feeds to highlight items with either positive or negative emotional content, and then measured if it affected the emotional content in each user?s future posts. While it is agreed the experiment was legal, critics argue this type of testing crosses the line. Forgive me everyone but I am a bit ?old-school? I have gained that label in many circles of my life including social media. I try to get excited about social media and begin to post a few items but it simply loses its vibrancy. For me, I believe I understand what social media is and its purpose but in all honesty I don?t believe I?ve posted anything on any given profile for years and when I did it was not to promote my own vanity but rather an attempt at marketing and selling a product. When I consider any social media communication I first have to get past the idea of disclosing what I would call ?personal information? to the world and secondly past the paranoia of whether or not I have just inadvertently volunteered information that could somehow be used against me ?most likely in a court of law? in the future. Still, it is the norm in today?s society and as we know Facebook is a huge success. The ?Look at me Generation? has not only taken hold but become part of our ever advancing technological makeup. As humans it is an integral part of our DNA to advance ourselves in whatever means necessary and why shouldn?t we? Don?t we deserve to be afforded the luxuries of advances in society that our parents didn?t have? Is this not natural progression in our time and our rite of passage? Have we not advanced in society and doesn?t this make us somehow better than the generation before? Through massive bombardment of information we have come to accept that in today?s world contracts and terms of service agreements are something that have been regulated by big brother or some type of three lettered agency that is looking out for our wellbeing. In large part we do not care and why should we? We still get to do all of the things we want to. We don?t give these issues any more thought than a benign food additive in a loaf of bread which we eat every day and of course we haven?t died yet. Take a second here and ask yourself if you can name at least five people that you are sure are not aware of what Facebook is ?excluding grandparents.? I am confident that no one can. The brainchild of its developers Mark Zuckerberg with his Harvard College roommates and fellow students Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes currently has over ?1.44 billion active users. Facebook, has become, ?a Global Power? and ?With great power, there must also come? great responsibility.? Highly admired people like Ghandi and Ninoy Aquino understand that if you have the ability to do something do it for the good for others. While critics speculate about things like motives, the hidden line that was crossed, the use of information or its sale for profit, risk and the potential harm or benefit it turns into something of a smoke and mirrors revolving shell game in a ?Where?s Waldo? cartoon designed to keep us guessing what the real issue is. In reality, it is this unknown element of ?purpose? that is to be of great concern. In this situation as accepting patrons of this companies terms of service do we honestly believe that they are indeed acting morally and ethically for the good of others? Quite clearly the answer is ?NO!? Have we been tricked and or duped and if so how and to what degree? Have our rights been violated? I contend that in this situation, unknowingly, with the click of a button you the consumer with the intent of claiming what is rightfully yours have relinquished your human rights for the rite of passage and a small token of ?look at me? vanity. ?But How?? and ?Why should we care?? The most obvious answer to this question is the negative impact of communications technology on Human Rights and our Civil Liberties. With the advancement in technology companies have the ability to gather a great deal more information on you than in the past. It is without question completely unethical and a huge infringement on our human rights. In an age of rapidly evolving technologies and potential harmful impacts on the human right to privacy, a special repertoire will serve a vital role in promoting and protecting the privacy rights of everyone worldwide. Surveillance and utilization of information must be employed only to further legitimate state objectives, such as law enforcement or national security, and it must also be proportionate to those ends. In December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 68/167 which expresses deep concern at the negative impact that surveillance and interception of communications may have on human rights. The General Assembly affirmed that the rights held by people offline must also be protected online, and it called upon all States to respect and protect the right to privacy in digital communication. The General Assembly called on all States to review their procedures, practices and legislation related to communications surveillance, interception and collection of personal data and emphasized the need for States to ensure the full and effective implementation of their obligations under international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has been translated into more than 350 languages worldwide, and more than 100 African languages. Article 12. ?No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.? (A related statement that I believe works well here) Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation 1961 In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.[ Now the power has squarely been put squarely in ?OUR? laps. The question is ?What are ?WE? going to do with our great power and ?OUR? great responsibility? Do Not! give up our power and our freedoms for a small token of vanity! - Like - 1 person likes this.
Kevin Greenberg said on Nov 6, 2014
I believe that this proposes a very broad ethical question involving the obviousness of the terms in which you agree to be used in various consumer experiments without being informed you are being observed. I think that if the gave the information and you chose to accept it then it is up to you in order to agree or disagree. - Like - 3 people like this.
Sam Wallace said on Dec 9, 2014
The Facebook terms of service is an agreement stating what/ can happen during the use of the Facebook site. If people have chosen not to read these terms they should not be complaining about their lack of being informed. - Like - 2 people like this.
Jace Carver and Walker Louthan said on Dec 9, 2014
This asks a separate question. although it is legal, should it be? they do ask if you agree but, if you disagree they won't allow use of the app. they need to be up front with their intentions instead of hiding them. Users deserve to have knowledge about surveys pertaining to their online profiles and information. On the other hand users should expect this type of situation when the download and use social media web sites. All in all the right thing to do would be to make sure that the users are aware of the surveys they are taking part in. - Like - 3 people like this.
Lindsay Allen said on Dec 14, 2014
I agree, they won't allow you to use the app. if you don't take the survey and that is not right. I feel it is another way to get more information about you than they are already getting from you. They do not go in depth like in fine print that is used. - Like - 1 person likes this.
Ashwin. J said on Apr 26, 2015
From a legal standpoint Facebook did not violate any laws, but they were clearly aware that users are not going to read tens and twenties pages worth of service agreements before making a profile. Facebook took advantage of that fact and slipped in this clause that made us into test subjects. Ethically, each of us have rights and our emotional intelligence is our own and ours to keep and use as we deem fit. Facebook should have more explicitly asked its users to partake in such an experiment. - Like - 1 person likes this.
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