Skip to main content

Did Facebook's experiment violate ethics?

By Robert Klitzman
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Facebook conducted a study on nearly 700,000 users by manipulating their news feeds
  • Robert Klitzman: Facebook basically tried to alter people's mood without their knowledge
  • He says despite Facebook's user policy, this study violates accepted research ethics
  • Klitzman: We should try to avoid as much as possible becoming human guinea pigs

Editor's note: Robert Klitzman is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University. He is author of the forthcoming book, "The Ethics Police?: The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Like many people, I use Facebook to keep up with friends about all kinds of things -- deaths, births, the latest fads, jokes.

So I was disturbed to learn about an article, "Experimental Evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks" published last week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Facebook had subjected nearly 700,000 users in an experiment without their knowledge, manipulating these individuals' news feeds, reducing positive or negative content, and examining the emotions of these individuals' subsequent posts.

Robert Klitzman
Robert Klitzman

Facebook essentially sought to manipulate people's mood. This is not a trivial undertaking. What if a depressed person became more depressed? Facebook says that the effect wasn't large, but it was large enough for the authors to publish the study in a major science journal.

This experiment is scandalous and violates accepted research ethics.

In 1974, following revelations of ethical violations in the Tuskegee Syphilis study, Congress passed the National Research Act. At Tuskegee, researchers followed African-American men with syphilis for decades and did not tell the subjects when penicillin became available as an effective treatment. The researchers feared that the subjects, if informed, would take the drug and be cured, ending the experiment.

Facebook's 'creepy' mood experiment

Public outcry led to federal regulations governing research on humans, requiring informed consent. These rules pertain, by law, to all studies conducted using federal funds, but have been extended by essentially all universities and pharmaceutical and biotech companies in this country to cover all research on humans, becoming the universally-accepted standard.

According to these regulations, all research must respect the rights of individual research subjects, and scientific investigators must therefore explain to participants the purposes of the study, describe the procedures (and which of these are experimental) and "any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts."

Facebook followed none of these mandates. The company has argued that the study was permissible because the website's data use policy states, "we may use the information we receive about you...for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement," and that "we may make friend suggestions, pick stories for your News Feed or suggest people to tag in photos."

But while the company is not legally required to follow this law, two of the study's three authors are affiliated with universities -- Cornell and the University of California at San Francisco -- that publicly uphold this standard.

The National Research Act led to the establishment of local research ethics committees, known as Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs), which can waive the informed consent requirement in certain instances, provided, "whenever appropriate, the subjects will be provided with additional pertinent information after participation" -- that is, researchers should "debrief" the participants afterwards.

Such a debriefing apparently did not occur here, but easily could have. Facebook said it reviewed the research internally, but there is no evidence that that review was by an IRB or met the standards of the federal regulations.

Moreover, the journal, PNAS, mandates that "all experiments have been conducted according to the principles expressed in the Declaration of Helsinki," which also dictates that subjects be informed of the study's "aims, methods...and the discomfort it may entail."

The lead author, Adam Kramer, apologized on Facebook, writing, "my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused." But that statement falls far short. The problem is not only how the study was described, but how it was conducted.

Many researchers try to avoid having to obtain appropriate informed consent, since they worry that potential subjects, if asked, would refuse to participate. Pharmaceutical, insurance and Internet companies and others are increasingly studying us, acquiring massive amounts of data about us -- about not only our Internet use, but our genomes and medical records. Many medical centers are building enormous biobanks. Countless websites now examine our behavior online. They ask us to scroll down and click "I accept," assuming we're unlikely to read the dense legalese and simply accept their terms.

In July 2011, President Obama released proposals to improve the current system of oversight on human research. The federal Office of Human Research Protections received public comments for a few months but appears to have put this on the back burner.

Social scientists have complained that the current regulations are onerous and that their research should be excused from IRB review.

The current system is overly bureaucratic and needs reform. But as this controversial Facebook experiment suggests, it should not be scrapped.

Good experiments benefit society. But in their zeal to conduct research, some social scientists overlook how their studies may impinge on people's rights. As the amount of research on humans continues to grow, more violations will probably occur. We should try to avoid as much as possible becoming human guinea pigs.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT