Reality Check: Facebook's Controversial Emotions Study Was Legal

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In this edition of Reality Check, Sam Brock looks at what a for-profit company like Facebook can do, legally, in the name of research.

    A firestorm erupted across the web over the weekend when news hit that Facebook had secretly conducted a psychological study where it intentionally altered users' News Feeds in order to assess the impact on their emotions.

    TIME Magazine's story was headlined with, "Facebook Totally Screwed With a Bunch of People in the Name of Science," while the Huffington Post ran with, "You May Have Been A Lab Rat In A Huge Facebook Experiment."

    Looking past the heated debate on Twitter, angry Facebook posts, and strongly worded op-eds and news articles, though, is an important question: Was the Facebook emotions study legal?

    Yes.

    Upon signing up for Facebook account, you basically waive your rights on how the Menlo Park company can use the data you provide it with.

    Buried in Facebook's Terms of Service, under the subsection titled "Information We Receive and How We Use It", are these pertinent details about how your data can be used: "For internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement."

    NBC Bay Area spoke with Tal Yarkoni, Ph.D., who's an expert in psychological research at the University of Texas, and he explained that Facebook's study of consumer behavior isn't unusual -- it's something that nearly every major company regularly does.

    What's unusual, according to Yarkoni, is that Facebook actually published its research in an academic journal -- the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- and by doing so, it opened itself up to a new set of standards.

    In this case, standards related to "informed consent" as defined by the American Psychological Association, which calls for subjects of research to be warned of potential risks, discomfort, or adverse effects before voluntarily opting into the study.

    However, Yarkoni said that because Facebook collected the data before it was used in the study, and presumably before they thought about printing their research for public consumption, the informed consent standard doesn't really apply.

    Or as Yarkoni explained, "There’s no requirement that I get informed consent because the data has already been collected for other purposes. So it would make no sense for Facebook to go back to its users and say, ‘oh by the way, we already have this data, it’s anonymized [and we're going to use it in a study.]'"

    In short, the Facebook study was legal, and according to Yarkoni, it was also ethical in how it was carried out.