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Did Facebook’s Psychological Experiment Ignore Right to Informed Consent?

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Facebook’s latest attempt to get into its users’ heads and glean behavioral patterns seems to have backfired. The social networking giant’s week-long secret psychological experiment has made headlines after its appearance in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). It’s raised concerns over the extent to which Facebook ignored the universally-accepted ‘informed consent’ mandate applicable to research on humans.


As part of the experiment, Facebook manipulated the news feeds of 700,000 unsuspecting users and  analyzed their emotional responses conveyed through posts. In effect, the network tinkered with users’ moods, which it maintains, was done to ‘test different products’. Facebook’s line of defense closely follows its site data use policy, which intimates users that their information may be used for’ internal operations,….., research and service improvement’. Furthermore, the site also warns users that it may make friend suggestions and pick stories for their News Feed.


That Facebook is neither a university, biotech company or pharmaceutical company, all of which are publicly obliged to meet the ‘informed consent’ standard, does not impose any legal liability to this end. However, some have argued that Facebook’s social experiment disregards people’s rights and sets a dangerous precedent for human research ethics. The ethical dilemmas of experiments on human behavior can be examined in several contexts and across various areas of research, as this study indicates. The important question is, where should Facebook have drawn the line. Would the results of the experiment be severely affected if the company had made a reasonable disclosure of its intention?


Following the backlash, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has apologized, saying that they never meant to upset users. As for the results of the experiment, Facebook found that users were influenced by News Feed shown to them, with positive news encouraging positivity in their own posts.