A new study using Facebook data to study “emotional contagion,” and the ensuing backlash of its publication offers the opportunity to examine several ethical principles in research. One of the pillars of ethically conducted research is balancing the risks to the individual participants against the potential benefits to society or scientific knowledge. While the study’s effects were quite small, the authors argue that “given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook, even small effects can have large aggregated consequences.” However, participants were not allowed to give informed consent, which constitutes a risk of the research and the major source of the backlash.
The ethical issues are complicated by the lack of federal funding, and associated lack of required compliance with federal regulations, the rights of private companies to adjust their services, the fact that this research could conceivably still have ethically been conducted with a waiver of consent, and the possible ethical obligation that powerful private companies might have to contributing to scientific knowledge and not just financial gain. Reporting on the study has also often used inflammatory and misleading language, which has ethical implications as well. Issues of research ethics should involve constant questioning and discussions, especially as research evolves in response to extremely rapidly changing technologies. As this study and its associated backlash have demonstrated, these discussions should involve perspectives from participants, researchers, editors, reviewers, and science journalists.
For a more in-depth discussion of the ethical issues raised in the Facebook study, please read the full text of Broaddus’ piece.
Michelle Broaddus holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology, and is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine. She completed a two-year fellowship with the Fordham University HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of her institution, Fordham University, the Research Ethics Training Institute, the National Institutes of Health, or the United States Government.
The author wishes to thank Jennifer Kubota, Ph.D., for her feedback on an original draft of this post.