Ethics of Facebook study questioned

The ethics of a Facebook study is being questioned after the company experimented with users' emotions through their news feeds.
Monday, June 30, 2014
The ethics of a Facebook study is being questioned after the company experimented with manipulating users' emotions through their news feeds. The incident highlights how there may be no company in history with this much power to influence what we think and feel as Facebook.

At this point, Facebook users are probably aware that whatever you share on any of your devices is likely to be shared with advertisers. But it's become a bit of a surprise that Facebook is using some of that information to affect peoples' emotions.

For tech-savvy users in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, news that Facebook manipulated some users' feeds as part of a behavioral experiment is no surprise.

"When you have friends who are always negative, don't you - whether it's a social network or reality - negative people, you tend to push away," said Facebook user Devon Frohne.

The study was conducted in 2012, but it was published last week. It's called "Experimental evidence of massive scale emotional contagion through social networks," and lots of clinical researchers are concerned about the way it was conducted.

"I don't think there's any way to overstate this -- you just simply do not play with people's emotions without asking their permission first," said consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow.

Yarrow is a researcher and instructor at Golden Gate University. Her biggest concern about this study -- that included about 680,000 Facebook users -- are the ethical implications.

"It doesn't even matter what kind of research you do," she said. "There are rules that govern how you go about doing research on human beings and they've been broken."

Working with Facebook, the researchers manipulated their news feeds and funneled positive posts from friends to one group and negative posts to another group to see how that affects user responses.

Facebook has not responded to our request for an interview. But in a post, one of the researchers responded to the blowback. In part, Adam Kramer wrote, "My coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused."

"I actually don't think a lot of consumers are going to give up on Facebook at this point," Yarrow said.

To read Facebook's study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, click here.
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