Facebook Secret Research On Users’ Emotions Is Unethical, Consumer Watchdog Says

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SANTA MONICA, CA – A 2012 secret experiment in which Facebook manipulated users’ news feed to see whether certain kinds of content made users happy or sad, violated basic research ethics, Consumer Watchdog said today.

Results of the experiment, which also involved academic researchers, were published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month.

“There is a longstanding rule that research involving human subjects requires informed consent.  The researchers clearly didn’t get it,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, “Sleazy, unethical behavior is nothing new for Facebook, so I’m not really surprised they would do this.  The academic researchers involved with the project and the National Academy of Sciences, which published the results, should be ashamed.”

Consumer Watchdog said that any claim from Facebook that the social networking giant’s Terms of Service (TOS) met the requirement that human subjects give informed consent before taking part in an experiment were unjustified.

“Facebook’s TOS — like those of most Internet companies — are cleverly crafted by high-priced lawyers so as to be virtually indecipherable to the average user, but allow Facebook to do essentially whatever it wants commercially,” said Simpson. “It protects Facebook and its sleazy business practices, but it in no way provides the level of informed consent that is expected and required when doing research with human subjects.”

The lead author of the research report was Adam D.I. Kramer of Facebook’s Core Data Science Team. Co-authors were Jamie E. Guillory of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California, San Francisco and Jeffrey T. Hancock of the Departments of Communication and Information Science, Cornell University. Susan T. Fiske, of Princeton University, edited the research paper. Read the paper here:

“Facebook has no ethics.  They do what they want and what is expedient until their fingers are caught in the cookie jar,” said Simpson. “Like the rest of the tech giants, they then apologize, wait a bit and then try something new that’s likely to be even more outrageous and intrusive. Silicon Valley calls this innovation.  I call it a compete disrespect for societal norms and customs.”  


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John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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