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Researcher: Facebook Psychology Study Breached Ethical Guidelines

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Over the weekend, the internet exploded over the fact that Facebook had conducted psychological experiments on user news feeds. While Zuckerberg's team doesn't see a problem with that it did, academic researchers seem think it breached ethical research guidelines.


James Grimmelmann, professor of law at the University of Maryland, has written an extensive blog post about the experiments. He points out that Facebook claims everything is OK because "[the study] 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."

Since, Facebook has added that the "research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person's Facebook account. " Again, it suggests that this makes everything OK.


But Grimmelmann claims that isn't really the point. Indeed, he points out that the subjects of the experiment didn't give informed consent—and Federal law requires informed consent on such studies. Not just that, he also claims that the study harmed participants:

This... was not an observational study. It was an experimental study—indeed, a randomized controlled trial—in which participants were treated differently. We wouldn't tell patients in a drug trial that the study was harmless because only a computer would ever know whether they received the placebo. The unwitting participants in the Facebook study were told (seemingly by their friends) for a week either that the world was a dark and cheerless place or that it was a saccharine paradise. That's psychological manipulation, even when it's carried out automatically.

He concludes that "this is bad, even for Facebook... This study is a scandal because it brought Facebook's troubling practices into a realm—academia—where we still have standards of treating people with dignity and serving the common good." And there, right there, is why all the weekend's fuss over a single scientific study is entirely deserved. [Laboratorium via Guardian]

Image by Spencer E Holtaway under Creative Commons license.