In the web era, the collection of data and analysis of the collected data rely on regulatory mechanisms know as terms of service. However, these terms of service are not sufficient to protect and distinguish from public, private or personal data. The definition of privacy and anonymity in web is not well defined and may lead to public confusion and companies abuse (Bos 2009, 2768). One of the most serious violations of the ethical principles of online data use has been known as the “Facebook contagion study”. In this study, a collaboration between the Department of Communication and Information Science at Cornell University and Facebook with a full title Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks, several principles regarding to data protection, express and informed consent from participants and data privacy have been disregarded (Kramer 2014, 8788-8790). Also, ethic standards for research have not been seriously addressed by the Institution Review Board (IRB) or by the editor of the Journal where the paper have been published, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Flick 2015, 14-28). With this essay the argument that the “Facebook contagion study” have violated several ethic principles will be advocated and the ethical principles that have not been meet will be identified and discussed.
Today, social networks such as Facebook along with other forms of online communication as email or blogging have become an easy, fast and simple way to spread a message, advertise a service, or simply communicate with the propose of work relationships, family and friends (Kucukemiroglu and Kara 2015, 3). The ease of access of people to social networks increasingly allows greater participation of individuals through the creation of online communities with the same interests, discussion groups, expression of feelings and immediate communication in relation to a particular subject or event. There is an online world that seems to be free and immediate, where participants can express their emotions and feelings without having to do it face-to-face which may contribute to a more direct and confident participation (Kucukemiroglu and Kara 2015, 3). Facebook and other online social media can act as platforms who mediate social discourse, representation and exchange (Caton, Hall and Weinhardt 2015, 2). Facebook users that usually emit opinions can be of two main types: opinion leaders or opinion seekers. Opinion leaders are pointed to be the ones with higher innovativeness and the ones who are trendsetting a certain community of users and influencing them. These opinion leaders will influence the opinion seekers in the same community or interest groups. However, the influence leaders themselves are also influenced by their social capital, which means, by their social connections that can facilitate their actions (Kucukemiroglu and Kara 2015, 7). That said, both opinion seekers and opinion leaders can be influenced in order to drive their actions and their online “posts” to a certain direction, thus influencing public behaviours.
The use of experiments to change behaviour like the one on “Facebook contagion study” are not new, and have been performed for long time from social and psychological researchers and companies wanting to influence their costumers (although the big difference is that researchers have gain consent from participants before). Still, the use of big data, or data directly collected from social networks like Facebook is a relatively new world. This new world of social network Big Data has been used mainly for business and political purposes and only little studies have used these data academically with the purpose to publish research in peer reviewed journals (Schroeder 2014, 5).
Data acquired from Facebook and other social networks is an important type of data as it is a realistic data, collected directly from main source (the users), so it is real conception on how people think and behave at a big scale. When conveniently analysed and interpreted this type of data can provide useful information regarding people behaviour and thoughts, and thus allow to adapt the contents according to the emotional experiences and emotions of the users. This type of research, is useful for business, political, marketing and all other opinion and behaviours influencing purposes. For academic purposes, Big Data brings the possibility to recognize and understand a phenomenon without making any changes, interventions or controlling in any way the environment of the study (Schroeder 2014, 6). Also, this type of research allows to study personal thoughts and behaviours that are difficult to research in academic field such as depression, relationship issues, substance abuse, friendship or family issues (Wilkinson and Thelwall 2010, 387).
Nevertheless, to acquire and use such data from social networks some ethical standards must be followed, and the “Facebook contagion study” has violated all the ethical standard for research with human subjects. In this study, 700,000 participants randomly selected from Facebook have been included. These participants were then separate in two groups: one group was exposed only to positive emotional content in the “News feed” from friends, and the other group was exposed only to negative emotional content from friends’ “News feed”. The participants were then analysed for their own publications on Facebook page, and how the positive or negative emotional content from friends impact on their own positive or negative content. It was found that individuals exposed to a more positive emotional content were more prone to also publish positive emotional content, and the same about negative content (Kramer 2014, 8788-8790).
Analysing the ethics behind the “Facebook contagion study” some conclusions could be drawn. Firstly, no consent form has been obtained from participants in the study. Although participants may have agreed with the terms of service when they sign up for Facebook (Kleinsman and Buckley 2015), these terms of service are most of the times extensive and hard to read, do not present with a simple and clear language that allow all costumers to understand the terms, and are not oriented to social research, especially to intervention research has the “Facebook contagion study” has been (Wel and Royakkers 2004, 129). Informed consent relies on the preposition that the subject of the study has known and understand what the objectives of the study are, and which type of research and interventions he/she will be subjected to. The subjects also must participate in the study in a volunteering way, and must be able to exert their autonomy, competence and disclosure regarding study methods and be able to abandon the project at any time. If the subject is not aware that he/she is being studied for his/her behaviour or is not able to understand the purpose and techniques of the study, therefore the subject is not giving informed consent to participate.
Secondly, no ethical board or Institution Review Board (IRB) from Cornell University has been consulted to analyse the ethics of the study. The University has relied this responsibility to the Facebook’s expertise with data collection, that is already doing similar data filtering and selection for commercial purposes (Kleinsman and Buckley 2015). Cornell University justified this decision based on the fact that researchers from the University did not participated in data collection, and did not have access to user’s data, so no IRB was needed from the University (Schroeder 2014, 3).
As as consequence of IRB excuse from Cornell University, only Facebook’s data use policy has been followed to conduct the research. This choice has deemed to be insufficient according to ethics in social research best practices. Facebook has performed data analysis and used manipulative methods to present data to its users in an unethical way, that goes being the intelligible aspects stated in the terms of service agreement that users are most of the times forced to agree with in order to not be excluded form the social media networks (Flick 2015,3). Facebook’s attitude with this study has been clearly manipulative in the view of ethics for social research.
Lastly, the editor in chief of the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has accepted the manuscript for publication without further questioning how data has been collected and without having properly analysed the ethic consequences of the publication of the study. This has been later justified by the private character of Facebook organization, that does not rely on the same ethics of conduct that researchers need to follow. However, this situation has lead to a subsequent corrections and justifications from both editor and authors of the study (Verma 2014), justifying that the social advantages of study outperform the need for informed consent.
In conclusion, we have seen that with “Facebook contagion study” it has been a clear violation of individual autonomy of the the participants in this study, and no one seems to have a responsibility or at least wants to take responsibility for what has been done. Researchers have clearly failed to obtain participants consent for inclusion in the study, no ethical board from Cornell University has been consulted, Facebook acted with clear disregard of users’ autonomy and privacy and the editor of the journal where the article has been published failed to review for agreement with ethical standards for publication. This case raised new ethical concerns about the use of big data from social networks and warned of the danger of improper and abusive use of data from online social network users.
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