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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.
A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center)