Thursday, July 10, 2014

Manipulating Facebook Users' Newsfeeds: the Ethics of Testing Emotional Contagion

Facebook is the proverbial gold mine for social and behavioral researchers. Individuals spend hours on it each day documenting their lives, their interactions with others, and their interaction with media. The program collects and analyzes the information, providing an interesting glimpse into various aspects of humanity. The ethics of using Facebook and other social media outlets to gather data is more opaque, however. Facebook users generally post information to a closed group of friends with the expectation that their friends will view the information as part of a normal social interaction. Although the information is posted on the web, some would argue that there is an expectation of privacy. If researchers glean information from Facebook posts without permission, it is similar to a researcher recording a conversation without permission, etc. Engaging participants in a study without their knowledge, particularly by manipulating their newsfeeds, is even more egregious. A Facebook data scientist and two other researchers from the University of California and Cornell University conducted a study in 2012 where they attempted to test the response that users would have to reading negative or positive posts on their newsfeed; they manipulated nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds and tracked the users’ responses to see if they mirrored the negativity or remained neutral (i.e. “emotional contagion”).  The Facebook users became unwitting participants in a research study without giving permission; in addition to the lack of consent, the participants were manipulated with the intent to influence the individual’s state of being. While an IRB generally approves using manipulation to study participants, there are specific elements that are required to be in place such as the post-consent debriefing that helps the participant to understand the full nature of the study and provides a more complete consent. In a study where the researcher is manipulating emotions and there is the potential to make a participant upset, the debriefing session is particularly important so that the researcher can gauge the mental state of the participant and assess if additional help is needed.

Facebook users don’t exist in a vacuum. Every day their data are used by corporations to manipulate users to buy products or click on certain links. However, the relationship of trust between researchers and participants is a valuable commodity and when it is abused it is costly not only to participants but to researchers as well. Facebook users voiced their opinion about the manipulation and Adam Kramer, the Facebook data scientist who worked on the study, responded by posting this apology: "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. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety."

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