Bonita V. Earls
Dr. George C. Banks
His paper explores the ethical impact of Facebooks 2012 study on emotional contagion in a social web environment. The study is controversial due to the fact Facebook researchers failed to follow standard ethical guidelines as set forth in the healthcare industry, failed to clearly communicate the study, its intentions, and methodology to its users, and manipulated data in such a way it invoked emotional and mood changes of its unaware users. The idea of algorithmic program use in the social media sphere comes into question as well.
In January 2012, the news feeds of approximately 700,000 users of the popular social media site, Facebook, were manipulated in a manner so that some of its users only had positive news stories show up on their pages and others had only negative news stories show up. The experiment was conducted over the span of a week, from the 11th to the 18th, without the knowledge of the users (Kramer, 2014). According to the researchers, the goal was to see if “emotional contagion” occurs without direct interaction between people and in the absence of nonverbal cues. By manipulating the news stories, either all positive or all negative, they could study what effects, if any, there was on the moods of the users (LaChance, 2014). This is only one of many social experiments that the Facebook Core Data Science Team, has performed since 2008 when the team was established. All of which were performed without the knowledge of the website users (Dewey, 2014).
Performing social experiments and studying the psychology behind human behaviors is not new nor is the concept of studying human behavior itself unethical. What is unethical though, is experiments being performed on unaware, ill informed, and possibly unwilling subjects. This type of tactic is not new as the brief timeline that follows will show:
Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S Department of Health conducted a study on the effects of syphilis if left untreated. They used 400 African American men who were injected with the syphilis virus when the patients actually thought they were being treated for “bad blood.” Researchers withheld the widely used treatment (penicillin) to study what would happen. This was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
In response to news that Nazi Germany had nuclear weapons at its disposal, and as a result of the $2 billion Manhattan Project that developed an atomic bomb, between 1944 and the 1980’s, the U.S. Government funded “secret research” on its own military personnel, pregnant women, and cancer patients. The patients were unaware they were being studied or exposed to this highly harmful emission.
Between 1946 and 1948, the U.S. government intentionally infected 700 (of the originally planned 1300) subjects in Guatemala with a variety of venereal diseases so that they could study the effects of penicillin treatment. The subjects were unaware they were being injected or studied. Eighty three people died as a result.
In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. In 1962 they were awarded the Nobel Prize. Their discoveries were a result of secretly obtained x-ray diffraction data of a fellow scientist, Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was unaware her information as being shared with other scientists and their discoveries were held from her. To make matters worse, she was part of the group of scientist studying DNA and Watson and Crick were her peers. In other words, she became an unwilling and unaware subject in a study she was a part of. Her colleagues took full credit for the discoveries.
Between 1956 and 1990, mentally disabled children at the Willowbrook State School were used as test subjects in hepatitis experiments. The children were injected with the disease and studied to determine the disease’s natural