Did an institutional review board (IRB)—an independent ethics committee that vets research that involves humans—approve the experiment?
According to a Cornell University press statement on Monday, the experiment was conducted before an IRB was consulted.* Cornell professor Jeffrey Hancock—an author of the study—began working on the results after Facebook had conducted the experiment. Hancock only had access to results, says the release, so “Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.”
In other words, the experiment had already been run, so its human subjects were beyond protecting. Assuming the researchers did not see users’ confidential data, the results of the experiment could be examined without further endangering any subjects.
Both Cornell and Facebook have been reluctant to provide details about the process beyond their respective prepared statments. One of the study's authors told The Atlantic on Monday that he’s been advised by the university not to speak to reporters.
By the time the study reached Susan Fiske, the Princeton University psychology professor who edited the study for publication, Cornell’s IRB members had already determined it outside of their purview.
Fiske had earlier conveyed to The Atlantic that the experiment was IRB-approved.
“I was concerned,” Fiske told The Atlantic on Saturday, “until I queried the authors and they said their local institutional review board had approved it—and apparently on the grounds that Facebook apparently manipulates people's News Feeds all the time.”
On Sunday, other reports raised questions about how an IRB was consulted. In a Facebook post on Sunday, study author Adam Kramer referenced only “internal review practices.” And a Forbes report that day, citing an unnamed source, claimed that Facebook only used an internal review.
When The Atlantic asked Fiske to clarify Sunday, she said the researchers’ “revision letter said they had Cornell IRB approval as a ‘pre-existing dataset’ presumably from FB, who seems to have reviewed it as well in some unspecified way... Under IRB regulations, pre-existing dataset would have been approved previously and someone is just analyzing data already collected, often by someone else.”
The mention of a “pre-existing dataset” here matters because, as Fiske explained in a follow-up email, "presumably the data already existed when they applied to Cornell IRB.” (She also noted: “I am not second-guessing the decision.”) Cornell’s Monday statement confirms this presumption.
On Saturday, Fiske said that she didn’t want the “the originality of the research” to be lost, but called the experiment “an open ethical question.”
“It's ethically okay from the regulations perspective, but ethics are kind of social decisions. There's not an absolute answer. And so the level of outrage that appears to be happening suggests that maybe it shouldn't have been done...I'm still thinking about it and I'm a little creeped out, too.”
For more, check Atlantic editor Adrienne LaFrance’s full interview with Prof. Fiske.
From what we know now, were the experiment’s subjects able to provide informed consent?
In its ethical principles and code of conduct, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines informed consent like this:
When psychologists conduct research or provide assessment, therapy, counseling, or consulting services in person or via electronic transmission or other forms of communication, they obtain the informed consent of the individual or individuals using language that is reasonably understandable to that person or persons except when conducting such activities without consent is mandated by law or governmental regulation or as otherwise provided in this Ethics Code.
As mentioned above, the research seems to have been carried out under Facebook’s extensive terms of service. The company’s current data use policy, which governs exactly how it may use users’ data, runs to more than 9,000 words and uses the word “research” twice. But as Forbes writer Kashmir Hill reported Monday night, the data use policy in effect when the experiment was conducted never mentioned “research” at all—the word wasn’t inserted until May 2012.
Never mind whether the current data use policy constitutes “language that is reasonably understandable”: Under the January 2012 terms of service, did Facebook secure even shaky consent?
The APA has further guidelines for so-called “deceptive research” like this, where the real purpose of the research can’t be made available to participants during research. The last of these guidelines is:
Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data.
At the end of the experiment, did Facebook tell the user-subjects that their News Feeds had been altered for the sake of research? If so, the study never mentions it.
James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, believes the study did not secure informed consent. And he adds that Facebook fails even its own standards, which are lower than that of the academy:
A stronger reason is that even when Facebook manipulates our News Feeds to sell us things, it is supposed—legally and ethically—to meet certain minimal standards. Anything on Facebook that is actually an ad is labelled as such (even if not always clearly.) This study failed even that test, and for a particularly unappealing research goal: We wanted to see if we could make you feel bad without you noticing. We succeeded.
Did the U.S. government sponsor the research?