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Facebook Study: A Little Bit Unethical But Worth It?


Human research involving the use social media raises many of the same issues as medical research. The publication of a paper in June 2014 investigating “emotional contagion” received extensive publicity recently because of the methods used. The approach involved manipulating the “News Feeds” of Facebook users, but the participants were not informed of their involvement in the research and had no opportunity to consent or opt out. Some commentators have argued that although it would have been preferable to obtain informed consent, it was not strictly required because the research was unlikely to cause significant harm and was important. This paper argues that the research was unethical because (i) it should have been overseen by an independent ethics committee or review board and (ii) informed consent could and should have been obtained. Regardless of the importance of any research and irrespective of its likelihood to cause harm, the ethical principles that have evolved since the 1940s should be followed in all instances when experimental research is being carried out on human participants.

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    Note that we do not address here the ethical issues associated with the commercially motivated and standard practice of manipulating feeds by Facebook. This is a separate issue, worthy of further exploration but outside of our focus on the ethics of the Facebook research. Our point is that research on humans is subject to its own rigorous set of principles.


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Correspondence to John Kleinsman.

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Kleinsman, J., Buckley, S. Facebook Study: A Little Bit Unethical But Worth It?. Bioethical Inquiry 12, 179–182 (2015).

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  • Social media
  • Human experimentation
  • Ethics research
  • Informed consent