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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT