Facebook’s “Emotional Contagion” Experiment: Was it Ethical?

By now, you’ve probably heard that data scientists at Facebook recently published a study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science revealing that, in their words, “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” Or, to be blunt, seeing more negative stories on Facebook can make you sad.

Multiple news outlets covered the results, which broke a couple of weeks ago, but in the last day the focus has shifted to the methodology of the study, revealing that:

  • 689,003 Facebook accounts were used for the study
  • The researchers “manipulated the extent to which people…were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed.”
  • According to the study, “No text was seen by the researchers. As such, it 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.”

I’m not going to focus too much on the ethics and quality of the science here–others are ably doing that (see links below)–but I do want to speak to the way in which user data was used, and the problematic precedent that sets for the ethical use of social data in general.

In the proposed Code of Ethics that the Big Boulder Initiative has drafted (still open to feedback before we finalize), we laid out four specific mandates for social data use: Privacy; Transparency and Methodology; Education; and Accountability.


While the experiment aggregated data such that researchers could not identify individual posts, it breaches users’ expectations about how such data will be used. The Big Boulder Initiative draft Code of Ethics states that, “in addition to honoring explicit privacy settings, organizations should do their best to honor implicit privacy preferences where possible.”

In the section of the Facebook privacy page entitled “Information We Receive and How it is Used,” however, Facebook focuses primarily on the advertising uses of social data, with the exception of a brief bullet point at the end, which states that Facebook may use data:

“…for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

While the word “research” is there in black and white, there is no description of the nature of any potential research, which raises an important point related to privacy; ethical use should anticipate not only the implicit (downstream) implications related to an explicit privacy setting, but a reasonable user’s expectations as well.

Says Sherry Emery, Principal Investigator at the Health Media Collaboratory, who works regularly with social data, “the fact that the researchers justified their use of the data by saying that it complied with the ‘terms of use’ highlights how ineffective–useless, even–the ‘terms of use’ agreement is.”

Transparency and Methodology

The experiment relies on Facebook’s Data Use Policy to argue for transparency, but, says Emery, “It’s one thing to observe and make inferences about human behavior in a ‘naturalistic setting’. It’s another to manipulate subjects without their knowledge.”

Part of the challenge is that the research study raises questions about the proper use of social data within the social and behavioral sciences. But, while social data is relatively new, social science is not. The National Science Foundation commentary on informed consent provides a clear guideline:

“IRBs [Institutional Review Boards] and researchers should not defeat the purpose of informed consent by substituting a legalistic consent form for an effective communication process.” (Informed Consent in Social and Behavioral Science)

And the study has wider implications. We have to ask how, ultimately, these findings may be used. Does this set a precedent to use Facebook or other data to manipulate individuals’ emotional states for commercial or other purposes via “contagion”? (That term is really not helping, btw).

Whatever our personal standards for ethical use of data in general, the fact remains that social data is new and complex, and it carries with it a slew of implications that we are only just beginning to understand. “If this doesn’t spark a huge debate about data ethics,” Emery says, “I’ll be surprised. I’ve been waiting, a little bit worried, for public outcry about data science if we didn’t get out ahead of the curve and establish guidelines for ethics in data research. I think this might be the thing that starts the debate–with a bang.”

Please leave your thoughts here, and contribute to the Code of Ethics; the more specific and evidence-based, the better. I will link to substantive related posts below.

Update: Co-author Adam D. I. Kramer posts a response here.

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