Monday, June 30, 2014

Social Networks, Research, and Ethical Questions

Many in academia have been looking at social networks and other large online sites as possible treasure troves of rich data for research. New data sets are out there, and they are more detailed than ever before! However, what are the ethical implications when researchers directly manipulate subject behavior (in the field, not in a lab setting), rather than simply analyzing natural actions?

News recently broke that Facebook manipulated a sample of users’ news feeds in either a more “positive” or “negative” direction, as part of a Psychology experiment:

The aim of the experiment was to see if a “mood” could be manipulated and then spread through groups of users online, as has been shown possible in face-to-face settings in real life, through past research. The sources I’ve found so far do not mention whether any type of IRB review was involved, but it raises some disturbing questions. As more psychological/sociological research moves into private corporations, and out of universities, should similar standards of non-harm be followed? What is Facebook’s moral compass? As this story unfolds, it could be a fascinating class discussion about why and how certain academic safeguards came to exist.