The purpose of the experiment was to determine whether manipulation of an individual's Facebook news feed by blocking either positive or negative emotional content could affect the mood and emotional expression of that person. In short, the experiment sought to determine whether emotion is "contagious."
The paper defends its ethical standards by arguing that it "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."
Regarding the engagement of Facebook users in research, Facebook's Data Use Policy states the following:
"We use the information we receive about you in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users like your friends, our partners, the advertisers that purchase ads on the site, and the developers that build the games, applications, and websites you use. For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you: ... for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement."
The policy also states: "We give your information to the people and companies that help us provide, understand and improve the services we offer. For example, we may use outside vendors to help host our website, serve photos and videos, process payments, analyze data, conduct and publish research, measure the effectiveness of ads, or provide search results."
The Rest of the Story
This research violates basic ethical standards of informed consent for two reasons:
1. The subjects did not consent to participate in the study.
In fact, the subjects had no idea that they were part of an experiment involving artificial manipulation of their news feed for the purposes of potential inducing happiness or sadness as part of a research study. This potential use of their Facebook account is simply not mentioned in the Data Use Policy. The policy states that the information provided by users may be used for research purposes. It also states that the information may be shared with outside vendors to conduct research. However, nowhere does the policy state that users agree to intentional manipulation by Facebook staff for research purposes.
In other words, while the policy allows Facebook to collect and use user information for research purposes, it does not allow Facebook to conduct interventions in which it manipulates feeds shared with users in order to try to control their emotions as part of a research experiment.
Thus, before even getting to the issue of informed consent, the subjects in this research did not even consent to the research in the first place.
2. The subjects did not provide informed consent for their participation in the research.
Contrary to the assertion of the authors of this paper, simply being aware that the information one provides to Facebook may be used for research purposes does not constitute informed consent. The fact that users agreed to a Data Use Policy which notes that information may be used for research purposes does not, as the authors state, "[constitute] informed consent for this research."
In order to represent informed consent, there are several other elements which must take place. These are explained best by Professor James Grimmelmann over at The Laboratorium:
"The standard of consent for terms of service is low. But that “consent” is a legal fiction, designed to facilitate online interactions. (See Nancy Kim and Margaret Jane Radin’s books for more.) It’s very different from informed consent, the ethical and legal standard for human subjects research (HSR). The Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, a/k/a the Common Rule, requires that informed consent include:
(1) A statement that the study involves research, an explanation of the purposes of the research and the expected duration of the subject’s participation, a description of the procedures to be followed, and identification of any procedures which are experimental;Facebook’s actual Data Use Policy contains none of these, only general statements that “we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” and “We give your information to the people and companies that help us provide, understand and improve the services we offer. For example, we may use outside vendors to … conduct and publish research.” Neither of these comes close to a “description of the procedures to be followed” or a “description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts,” and the Data Use Policy doesn’t even attempt to offer a contact for questions or an opt-out."
(2) A description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject; …
(7) An explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects’ rights, and whom to contact in the event of a research-related injury to the subject;
(8) A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled.
It is clear, then, that this study violated the principles of informed consent, as subjects did not provide informed consent prior to being enrolled in the research.
There is a provision for waiver of informed consent; however, the conditions for such a waiver were not met because: (1) the level of risk was not minimal; (2) the waiver did affect the rights and welfare of the subjects; (3) the research could still practicably have been carried out with informed consent; (4) subjects were not provided with information after the study to explain what occurred.
An Unethical Experiment
Because this research was funded by the federal government (by the Army Research Office, according to Cornell), it is subject to the human subjects research requirements. In addition, the involvement of two researchers at academic (federally-funded) institutions requires that the research be approved by an Institutional Review Board. Apparently, the research was approved by an academic IRB, a decision which I publicly question, for the above reasons.
The rest of the story is that despite the Common Rule and the intense efforts to try to prevent human subject violations in research, there are still occasional studies which find their way through the cracks. This is one bad example. It is an example of an unethical experiment that should never have been approved by an IRB in its current form because it blatantly violates the ethical principles of both consent and informed consent.