Facebook’s Research Breached Ethical Standards

facebook-thumb-downThe revelations published in the Wall St Journal that Facebook in 2012 had manipulated information on the news feeds of 689,000 users home pages, in an attempt to make people feel more positive or negative through a process called ’emotional contagion’ has set the psychological world talking – mainly about research ethics.

In an open letter to the Guardian Newspaper on the 1st of July 2014 Professor Kate Bullen (Chair,ethics committee),and Professor John Oates (Chair, research ethics reference group) British Psychological Society stated Facebook’s ‘experiment’  ;

‘Infringed the autonomy and dignity of individuals by interfering with the personal decision-making as to the posts that people wished to make to their chosen groups and, most importantly, by failing to gain valid informed consent from the participants……

..The intervention was socially irresponsible, in that it clandestinely meddled in people’s social lives with consequences that are very likely to have had significant negative effects on individuals and groups. ‘

The term ’emotional contagion’ could be described as mass empathy, the tendency for humans to be able to identify with another’s suffering or happiness on a mass scale, for example someone sharing a picture of a cute puppy on Facebook which is shared 1000’s of times, those who use social media have all experienced this phenomenon to one degree or another.

Not to put to finer point on it, Facebook were trying to manipulate the emotions of 689,000 people, some may use the term ‘brain washing’.

The history of psychology is awash with unethical experiments, for example ;-

The story of Little Albert (1920)

Littler albert

John Watson the father of behaviourist psychology, wanted to test his theory that fear was a conditioned or an inbuilt response.

To do this he used a nine month old child called Albert, the child was given laboratory white rat to play with, at this point the child showed no fear of the animal.

Watson then stood behind Albert and every time the child picked up the Rat, he would hit a metal bar with a hammer, which startled the child.

Eventually the child associated the rat with fear and would cry every time the rat came near, the unfortunate after effects of this experiment soon became clear, Albert showed fear of anything that was white and fluffy, a reaction that Watson could not reverse.

Watson however, went on to leave psychology and join the advertising firm J Walter Thompson……

MKUltra (1953)

Carl Rogers and The CIA

MK Ultra was the code came of the CIA’s mind control program during the 1950’s – 60’s, which recruited an army of psychologists to it’s research programs including our very own Carl Ransom Rogers.

Yes, uncle Carl worked on a project for the CIA code named sub-project 74 when he was a Wisconsin University, the research was carried out according to Colin A. Ross in his book The C.I.A. Doctors: Human Rights Violations by American Psychiatrists on ‘Schizophrenic patients and ‘Normals’!

Although little information is available on what actual research Carl Rogers undertook, we do know that MKUltra was a wide ranging research project concerning itself with behavioural control of humans amongst the many projects undertaken in this research , were experiments with the drug LSD , use of electro stimulation on the brain and Hypnosis.

One theme which connects all the above research to the Facebook debacle is the lack of informed consent amongst research participants and quite dubious reasons for undertaking research in the first place.

However one question still unanswered is why Facebook undertook the research in the first place , for whom and why ?

One possible clue might be the Cornell University connection, I found a press release on their website distancing themselves from the Facebook Research while confirming that;

: ‘Jeffrey Hancock and Jamie Guillory, a Cornell doctoral student at the time (now at University of California San Francisco) analyzed results from previously conducted research by Facebook into emotional contagion among its users. Professor Hancock and Dr. Guillory did not participate in data collection and did not have access to user data.

Their work was limited to initial discussions, analyzing the research results and working with colleagues from Facebook to prepare the peer-reviewed paper “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks,” published online June 2 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science-Social Science’

Incidentally Cornell is one of  many University’s contributing  to the America Military’s Minerva project who describe their activities as follows.

Seek to define and develop foundational knowledge about sources of present and future conflict with an eye toward better understanding of the political trajectories of key regions of the world’

In other words find out what we think and do …

If you are are a student interested in undertaking research as part of you course studies and look out for my new course guide ‘Rory’s Easy Research’ available as a paid download in  September 2014.

Click here to download Tim Bonds excellent guide on conducting ethical research

Why not comment on your research experiences ? we would love to hear your ideas ?


Not Credited. (2014). Facebook’s ‘experiment’ was socially irresponsible. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/01/facebook-socially-irresponsible. Last accessed 25th July 2014 .

Colin A. Ross (2006). The C.I.A. Doctors: Human Rights Violations by American Psychiatrists. Texas: Manitou Communications. 14. Public Relations department . (2014).

 Media statement on Cornell University’s role in Facebook ‘emotional contagion’ research. Available: http://mediarelations.cornell.edu/2014/06/30/media-statement-on-cornell-universitys-role-in-facebook-emotional-contagion-research/. Last accessed 25th of July 2014. Various . (2014). 

University-Led Research. Available: http://minerva.dtic.mil/funded.html. Last accessed 25th July 2014.