33 Ethicists Defend Facebook’s Controversial Mood Study

A group of bioethicists wrote in a column published on Wednesday that Facebook’s controversial study of mood manipulation was not unethical, and harsh criticism of it risks putting a chill on future research. The article was written by six ethicists, joined by 27 others.

The study, which was designed in part by Cornell University researchers and carried out by Facebook in 2012, made tweaks in the social network’s algorithm that determines what appears in a user’s timeline, in an effort to measure how changes in the amount of positive and negative language a user sees affect the mood of his or her own posts. Privacy advocates have criticized the study, pointing out that users did not know they were part of it.

In the article, published in the journal Nature, Michelle N. Meyer, one of the co-authors, argues, among other things, that:

  • If in the experiment Facebook “purposefully messed with people’s minds,” it was no more than it usually does through routine changes in its algorithm.
  • Criticism of the study could drive large companies that already have access to mountains of personal data to stop sharing those data for research.
  • Though they were not legally required to do so, the researchers should have sought an ethical review and debriefed the study’s participants.

Ms. Meyer is director of bioethics policy in the Union Graduate College of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s bioethics program.

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