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Several IU faculty add their voices to defense of controversial Facebook research study

July 21, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- Five Indiana University faculty have signed on to a statement published in the journal Nature countering widespread criticism of a recent research study of Facebook users.

"We are making this stand because the vitriolic criticism of this study could have a chilling effect on valuable research. Worse, it perpetuates the presumption that research is dangerous," said the authors of the Nature article, led by Michelle N. Meyer, director of bioethics policy at the Union Graduate College–Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Bioethics Program in New York.

The Facebook study, published June 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attempted to test whether "emotional contagion" -- in which people take on the emotional states of those around them -- could occur as a result of changes in the emotional content of Facebook's news feed.

Working with researchers from Cornell University, Facebook randomly selected 310,000 users. Using automated software, Facebook altered the users' news feeds to remove a portion of negative content from some users' feeds and positive content from other users' feeds. The researchers reported that the changes did have an impact, though small, on the Facebook users' use of positive and negative words in their own posts.

The study has generated much criticism from those arguing it was unethical manipulation of unwitting users, and that the users should have been advised in advance, similar to the informed consent required in tests of new drugs.

The Nature authors argue that Facebook alters its news feed algorithm on a regular basis, that no one's privacy was invaded, and research is needed if we are to understand the effects of such services.

“Finding the correct balance between individual privacy and research interests is one of the thorniest problems faced by policymakers, lawyers and ethicists. While I lean towards protecting individual privacy and wish Facebook would do more in that direction the hysteria greeting this research was unwarranted,” said Nicolas Terry, director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

"This study got people's attention because it showed how science, marketing and social media are now joining forces in unexpected ways. I hope Facebook and the public each learned something," said Eric Meslin, director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics.

In addition to Terry and Meslin, those from IU signing in support of the statement were Fred Cate, director of the Center for Law, Ethics and Applied Research in Health Information, Peter Schwartz of the IU Center for Bioethics and Ross Silverman of the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.

The six Nature authors noted that there was some disagreement among them over the issue of informed consent -- the general requirement to advise people participating in clinical trials of the procedures and risks involved in the trial -- although none of them thought informed consent was necessary in this case.

“The informed consent issue is complicated," Meslin said. "According to U.S. research regulations, informed consent wasn’t required since the study did not personally identify the approximately 310,000 people involved.

"But even if the regulations could be interpreted to apply, obtaining informed consent would have made the study virtually impossible to carry out since informing people about its purpose may have affected the way they responded to the manipulated information. Some other form of information sharing was needed: better disclosures up front and better debriefing on the back-end.”