Recently news of a controversial Facebook research study came out, and it upset many people. For the study, researchers had manipulated people’s Facebook feeds to show them either more happy stories or more sad stories, and then measured how that manipulation affected the types of posts and posting frequency of the affected individuals. In short, they found that, yes: when a person’s Facebook feed is sadder, that person tends to post less frequently, and what they post is of a darker and more gloomy nature. When the feed is happier, people post happier things. The researchers call this “emotional contagion” and it is an interesting finding, to be sure.
But is this ethical? Some 700,000 Facebook feeds were manipulated, and many people are concerned because they argue that Facebook’s privacy and data permissions do not allow for this level of manipulation. Facebook may have made some people marginally happier during the experiment, which is hard to complain about, but what about all of the people they intentionally saddened? For people suffering from depression or anxiety, being experimented upon without consent in a manner that puts them at risk for being intentionally saddened definitely seems problematic. And while the findings from this experiment are interesting, and have many potential applications, it’s difficult to rely on research data that has been obtained in a questionable or non-standard manner.