PNAS, the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published on June 24, 2014 the results of a study involving Facebook (FB) users. The authors wanted to ‘test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed.’ The researchers investigated this question by manipulating the newsfeeds of a few hundred thousand randomly selected FB users. Some received more positive messages, and some received more negative messages. The identities of these users were not known to the researchers in question. FB permitted social scientists to mess with some of their users’ brains for the purposes of a research project. It’s something that FB does frequently. The contents of its news-feeds are manipulated all the time, its algorithms changed often. FB users have agreed to this since 2012 when they signed up to a user agreement for the free service stating:
’… we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.’
For reasons I still fail to understand fully, some high-profile US bioethicists came out in the typical fashion bioethicists have become notorious for – expressing outrage in various forms and shapes about the supposedly unethical nature of the study. My esteemed colleague Robert Klitzman, for instance, described the study as ‘scandalous’.
My own view of the study is that it isn’t scandalously unethical, even though it would have been better had the research participants been informed about being targeted for research purposes. It seems absurd to me that there are no complaints from these ethicists if FB does exactly the same thing (manipulating its news-feed algorithms to change its users – mine for crying out loud! – state of mind while we use their service). However, grandiose hand waving is triggered if researchers do the same in order to address important research questions. From a consequentialist perspective, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. More than that, we FB users are informed that ‘information we receive about you’ may be used for ‘testing’ and ‘research.’ Bioethicist Art Caplan, meanwhile, thinks that telling us that we might be subjected to research projects is insufficient for us to truly comprehend that we might be subjected to research projects. Really!
Well, to cut a long story short, Michelle Meyer and other bioethicists – myself included – came together to pen a response to our outraged colleagues, defending the research in question. Nature, of all publications, took our commentary. Check it out some time, be it just to reassure yourself that bioethicists aren’t all about seeing scandal and problems in every corner of the universe. Since we wrote our piece, a number of bioethicists, including Dan Brock, Peter Singer, Dan Wikler and others have signed on to our statement.
Let the debate begin.