Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Facebook Study: a question of ethics

Dear Readers: I'm taking time out from my posts on classroom community to examine another important topic. Please leave your comments whether you agree with me or not.         

            I’m shocked that there isn't greater outrage over the unethical study conducted by Facebook and reported last week: in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

            Roughly 700,000 people had their emotions manipulated.  On a purely statistical basis 46,900 of those subjects were already suffering from clinical depression (NIMH says it’s 6.7% of the adult population). Half of those depressed people (23,450) were made more depressed by Facebook.

            This was not a simple observational study in which data were gathered and used. It was an experiment in which subjects’ emotions were manipulated without their informed consent. “Informed consent” does not mean “I have a right to do this if they don’t opt out.”  In my opinion, three things should happen: 1) the subjects should be compensated for their participation; 2) the “researchers” should be fired and 3) all future government funding to Cornell and the University of San Francisco should be contingent on their ability to demonstrate that they have an IRB that can adequately protect the public against such abuse.

            Had this been a study of physical rather than mental health – say manipulating the medicine of 700,000 people to see if it will increase their cardiac or cancer symptoms without their knowledge – we would hear the outrage, but when it comes to mental health, fewer of us seem to care.

            Finally it should be noted that this was a stupid study. Anybody who doesn’t already know that being bombarded with crappy news makes you feel worse is totally out of touch. It doesn’t take an unethical study to prove the obvious.


  1. I agree, John Paul! Well said. I deactivated my Facebook account. I've talked to three friends so far who hadn't heard the news. Facebook gets away with these things because people just shrug their shoulders and keep using Facebook. Doesn't anyone remember 1984 by George Orwell?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Katherine. Perhaps many have forgotten, or have simply thrown in the towel.


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