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Rethinking Research Ethics: An Initial Response to the Facebook Study


By now you have undoubtedly heard about the recent emotional contagion study conducted by Facebook/Cornell University. The greatest outcome of this study now appears to be that it has sparked a long-overdue conversation about human subjects protection issues, research processes, and IRB processes in the digital age.

There has already been a plethora of opinion pieces written (Gillespie, 2014; Junco, 2014; Lanier, 2014) and radio interviews conducted about this (NPR, 2014), and I invite any reader to spend some time digesting these varied viewpoints on the study, the ethicality of the study, what we mean when we say informed consent, and a host of other issues.

danah boyd (2014) argues that frustration and outrage over this study stems from people’s overall frustration with big data: algorithms and quantifiable metrics monitoring, measuring, forecasting, and predicting our lives at every turn. This is couched in the language of social control, that the company (in this case Facebook) has more power over us than we have over ourselves. We find this particularly frustrating (worrying), and in our Western conceptions of perceived self-control, free will, and choice, such manipulations as manifested in this study leave many people feeling violated. I’ll have more to say about this in a future post – I am still attempting to work out my own thoughts on this matter because they are incredibly important.

Duncan J. Watts makes a valid point that one of the major issues that has reared its ugly head as a result of the Facebook/Cornell University study is that our ethical procedures and IRB processes have not caught up with the digital age. In fact, my own current situation reflects this in some ways. As I write, I am awaiting a full IRB Board review for my dissertation study involving social media. I am not certain what questions or concerns my own study will raise in terms of ethical or human subjects protections for the full IRB Panel, though I have some guesses that their concerns revolve around doing research on or through social media platforms. I’m attempting some new ways of collecting ‘data’ that likely make some people on my university’s IRB Panel nervous.

Of a few things I am convinced. First, I spent the greater part of the past few academic years thinking through the complex ethical, human subject, and methodological issues that come along with doing research in digital space. I have discussed these issues with colleagues, and most importantly, fully vetted my proposed methodology and forms of inquiry with my dissertation chair and committee members. Even in my proposal defense there were critical, important questions and concerns raised by members of my committee. Together, we worked through these issues.

Which leads to the second point. One key idea Watts (2014) makes in his article is that we are all working through research issues together. As researchers, we have in some ways become comfortable with granting power and authority to an almost sovereign body called the Institutional Review Board. It is our solemn belief, and we are told, taught, and believe that if the IRB signs off on our study, it is ethical and human subjects have been adequately protected.

Yet, this is not really the case. Ethical research and human subjects protection are processes; they are not static. There has been much furor and calls for more oversight, calls for Facebook and other corporations to develop review boards, panels, committees. No doubt there will be investigations. Perhaps all of this should be done. But I don’t think these are necessarily the solution(s).

Rather, there must be shifts in how we think about ethics, human subjects, and protections. As researchers, we should not relinquish our ethical authority to a sovereign body, be that an IRB or ethical oversight committee. Rather, we must continuously examine the process of research we are carrying out. At any moment, research we are conducting, insights we are garnering or surmising, and thoughts we are having lie on the border of potential ethical and human subjects violations. This is why we must personally, and collectively as research communities, consistently think through the ethical issues of our studies.

I sense a certain level of complacency and potentially lack of personal researcher responsibility in this Facebook study, and I wonder if this carries over to other research processes. But I also see something else.

In some ways I believe that concerns or fear of litigation have led to an over-simplification and over-reliance on strict method in conducting research – methods that we have complacently come to believe garner the most minimal risk to research participants. This is especially true at the graduate student level. Often the path of least resistance is selected in research studies at the doctoral student level, or at least this is my observation. It leaves me wondering if this is stymieing innovation, and destroying possible new methods of conducting research. It is not that we are not producing quality research in following such strict and rigid methodologies, because in most cases we are.

However, we must continuously push the boundaries of research and research methods. It is my own contention that digital social media spaces, and the digital revolution itself, is causing us to rethink many of our assumptions, processes, and ways of living, communicating, and conducting research. This is part of what happened at Facebook. The researchers sought to utilize the digital space of Facebook to answer a question that has been debated for millennia. The researchers pushed a methodological boundary.

My third point of conviction: we make mistakes in conducting research. We also have moments where what was once risky or unethical appears benign or standard course. In either case, we did not come to the present day without pushing methodological boundaries, trying new approaches to understanding the human condition, the world around us, or ourselves. We have centuries of work that brought us to our current understanding of research, method, and ethics, and we are all continuing the journey together.

My final point of conviction: there are many unresolved issues in digital spaces. Again, it is my own contention that the digital technological revolution has been so totalizing that we simply cannot think modernist thoughts about anything anymore. This includes research. Our conceptions and processes are modernist: IRBs, oversight committees, predictability, certainty, generalizability, one-size-fits-all. These concepts seem like relics of the past to me. We must have a critical discussion about what these perspectives mean, especially for research being conducted in a digital age.

For this reason, I have turned toward theories of complexity science, quantum physics, and post-qualitative research. This summer I am exploring other intellectual and even spiritual traditions related to research and human becoming. These ideas challenge us to think of research anew.

The key is that we are working through these issues together as researchers. We need to think critically about our own studies, assumptions, and processes, and we need to continue to have dialogues such as these. It may not have been their intention, but raising this dialogue to a level of national and international consciousness is one of the greatest benefits to come out of the Facebook emotional contagion study.


boyd, d. (2014, July 1). What does the Facebook experiment teach us? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://socialmediacollective.org/2014/07/01/facebook-experiment/

Gillespie, T. (2014, July 9). Social media collective weigh in on the debates about the Facebook emotion study [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://socialmediacollective.org/2014/07/09/social-media-collective-weigh-in-on-the-debates-about-the-facebook-emotions-study/

Junco, R. (2014, July 6). Why Facebook’s user manipulation study is ethically troubling [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://venturebeat.com/2014/07/06/why-facebooks-user-manipulation-research-study-is-ethically-troubling/

Lanier, J. (2014, June 30). Should Facebook manipulate users? The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/opinion/jaron-lanier-on-lack-of-transparency-in-facebook-study.html?_r=0

NPR. (2014, July 1). Facebook’s newsfeed study: Was it ethical or a violation of policy? National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/07/01/327248369/facebooks-newsfeed-study-was-it-ethical-or-a-violation-of-privacy

Watts, D. J. (2014, July 9). Lessons learned from the Facebook study. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/2014/07/01/327248369/facebooks-newsfeed-study-was-it-ethical-or-a-violation-of-privacy

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