Monday, November 23, 2015

Facebook: Manipulating Users with No Consent (2012)

Facebook logo
In January 2012, Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer ran an experiment on 689,003 Facebook users by manipulating their news feed to see if emotions were contagious on social media. The users that were chosen for the research had their news-feeds unknowingly manipulated to show either positive data only or negative data only for a one week period to see if the users were either depressed or elated by this change. Aside from emotional contagion, another main focus of the study was to gauge whether posts with emotional content are more engaging. Although the users chosen for the study were unaware that they were a part of said research, Facebook stands by their actions stating that every user agrees to their ‘Data Use Policy’ when joining the website, which includes one line about their information being used as ‘research,' which was added shortly after the study was conducted. It is common knowledge that most people do not read the Terms and Conditions when joining a social network, and Facebook users should be notified when they are participants in a research study, especially one that is intended to manipulate their emotion.
Adam Kramer and his colleagues conducted the study in January of 2012, but the study was published more than two years later on June 2, 2014. Kashmir Hill (Forbes) was one of the most notable reporters covering Facebook’s emotional contagion study, mainly questioning the ethics behind the study. Not only was Hill questioning the study itself, and the uninformed users, but the true intent of the information gathered from the ‘research study.’ Facebook users are questioning the use of their personal data as well, mainly because they are unaware of which information is being used and why. Facebook has repeatedly shared their users information to third party sources without consent, prompting several FTC complaints. Facebook users and critics alike hope that the federal complaints and settlements made will lead the company to change its privacy and data use policies.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and creator of Facebook
The stakeholders in the Facebook Emotional Manipulation Study are Adam Kramer and other Facebook research colleagues, Facebook users, the EPIC, and the FTC. The stakeholders primarily affected by the study are the 689,003 users who were a part of the emotional contagion study itself. The users in the study were unaware that the research was being conducted, and had their emotions manipulated without their informed consent. Facebook users who were not a part of the study are stakeholders as well. Many Facebook users were apprehensive about the use of their personal information on the website previous to the study, and following the publication of the emotional contagion study a sense of uneasiness and distaste for Facebook was the result among most. Adam Kramer and his colleagues faced major backlash regarding the study, including privacy infringement and the lack of informed consent allegations filed by the EPIC and FTC.

Adam Kramer, Facebook data scientist

Individualism is one of the many theories adopted by companies operating in the U.S. today. Milton Friedman defines Individualism by stating that “the only goal of business is to profit, so the only obligation that the business person has is to maximize profit for the owner or the stockholders.” While Tibor Machan explains Individualism by stating “The only direct goal of business is to profit, and the primary obligation of the business person is to maximize profit, but the direct goal of profiting may need to be met by indirect goals not aimed at profiting. Business people may have other goals and those goals may at times be prioritized over the goals of profit-maximizing (Salazar, PPT).”
Analyzing the Facebook Emotional Manipulation Study from Machan’s view of Individualism would show that Facebook’s main goal was to better their service using the information gathered from the research, and therefore the company was ethical in their actions. The Facebook Emotional Manipulation study would be seen as indirect way to increase profit, as it does not directly maximize the profit, but is a means for the goal.

Utilitarianism is an ethical framework that opposes the view of Individualistic theorists. Utilitarianism “tells us that we an determine the ethical significance of any action by looking to the consequences of that act.” Typically, Utilitarianism aims to maximize the overall good, and produce the greatest good for the greatest number. An act that achieves that goal is good, and act that does not is bad (DesJardins, 29).
According to an Utilitarian lens, the Facebook Emotional Manipulation Study would be considered unethical. Facebook conducted the experiment to prove that emotions were contagious through social media and over 689,003 Facebook users were unaware that their emotions were being manipulated. Facebook claims that their intention was to use the research to help improve their service, and social media services in general. Facebook stands by their decision to conduct the research without informed consent from the participants, claiming that research is included in their ‘Data Use Policy.’ Many of the users involved with the study had their emotions negatively manipulated purposefully, potentially inflicting emotional stress or damage. Facebook users and critics alike argued that the information was being used for purposes that only benefited the company, rather than producing the greatest good for the greatest number.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant created the theory of Kantianism. According to Kant “ethics requires us to treat all people as ends and never only as means.” Kant emphasizes that people are subjects, not objects, who are capable of choosing and thinking for themselves.
When analyzing the emotional contagion study through the Kantianism lens, Facebook’s actions would be considered unethical. Facebook did not inform the 689,003 users used in the study that their information was being used for research purposes, and therefore the company was treating their users as a means to end rather than the end itself. Facebook has had multiple conflicts regarding the use of its users personal information. Most notably, “the monetization of users’ personal data is one of the most controversial aspects of Facebook. Facebook’s primary goal is perceived as obtaining a profit from its users information, rather than using the information to better the service for its users. Many Facebook users have discontinued their use of Facebook due to the unethical actions the company has taken regarding the use of their personal information.

Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, CA
Virtue Theory
The Virtue Theory is defined as an ethics theory that “seeks to develop the character traits and habits that will lead us to live a meaningful and happy human life.” Virtue Theorists aim to teach people to be honest, trustworthy, respectful, loyal, courteous, moderate, and compassionate (DesJardins, p 42).
According to the Virtue Theory, Facebook’s actions would be considered unethical. The most questionable aspect of Facebook’s Emotional Manipulation Study was that the 689,003 users that were included in the study were uninformed that their information was being used for research. Facebook claims that ‘research’ was a term that was included in the company’s ‘Data Use Policy’ but it was later publicized by Kashmir Hill, a Forbes journalist, that the company added the term ‘research’ to the policy four months after the study was conducted. Facebook has had a history of being dishonest and deceptively using information gathered from the site, leading to multiple FTC and EPIC complaints and investigations. Adam Kramer and colleagues disregarded the potential harmful effects the study could have had on the users in the study, proving their lack of compassion and respectfulness. Following the publication of the study, Facebook users felt their privacy was violated, and their trust in the company rapidly declined. Overall, Facebook’s deceptive research tactics would lead Virtue Theorists to summarize that the company is unethical in their actions.

Ethics Case Evaluation
As a Facebook user, I find the Facebook Emotional Manipulation Study unethical. Although it is listed in the ‘Data Use Policy’ that the information I post on Facebook could be used for Facebook, or shared to third parties, I would appreciate consent before my information is actually shared. The lines regarding consent online are blurred, which gives Facebook the leeway to use information whichever way they want. I don’t find Facebook using research as a method to better their service unethical, and I think it is necessary to research social media’s affect on our emotions. Social media is a relatively new wave of technology, and the guidelines for privacy are still being perfected.
Facebook could have approached this study very differently. As proven by the study, social media has an affect on our emotions, and it is important to have research to prove that. By informing users about the study, the intentions, and possible outcomes, Facebook would have avoided negative media attention, an EPIC and FTC complaint, and also the reputation of their company. Giving users the choice to be a participant in the emotional manipulation study could have benefited Facebook in multiple ways. If the users had been informed, it might have led to an opportunity for them to participate in other studies that have useful information for Facebook’s research team. Facebook users, like myself, enjoy the feeling of their feedback being valued by the company, and could possibly lead to increased use in the site itself. In contrast, because users were unaware of their participation, Facebook users have claimed to decrease their use in the product following the publication of the study. Overall, I think it is imperative for Facebook to inform their users when their information is being used for research, advertising, or given to a third party.


Hill, K. (2014). Facebook Doesn't Understand The Fuss About Its Emotion Manipulation Study.
Forbes.Com, 2.

Kramer, A. Guillory, J. and Hancock, J.Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. PNAS 2014 111 (24) 8788-8790; published ahead of print June 2, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1320040111

McNeal, G. (2014) Facebook Faces Possible FTC Investigation For Manipulation Study., 1.

McNeal, G. (2014) Controversy Over Facebook Emotional Manipulation Study Grows as Timeline Becomes More Clear. forbes.Com, 1. 

Skemp, K. M. (2015). Facebook. Salem Press Encyclopedia,

Tello, L. (2013). Intimacy and «Extimacy» in Social Networks. Ethical Boundaries of Facebook.

Comunicar, 21(41), 205-213. doi:10.3916/C41-2013-20

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