How to ethically study people on Facebook? Researchers discuss


A study on Facebook users that altered the news feeds of some 700,000 people in 2012 drew shrill outcry from Facebook users, ethicists, politicians, and researchers when the work was published this summer. The feedback prompted a post-mortem of the methods in that study within the research community as well as a re-examination of ethics surrounding research on people and their data.

Two weeks after the Facebook experiment became big news, researchers from around the world—including the lead author of the study—sat down at Microsoft’s annual research conference in Redmond, Washington to examine some foundational ethical questions underpinning their work.

Mary Gray, chair of that session and part of the Social Media Collective group at Microsoft New England, has a post describing the discussion that took place.

“I received a couple hundred e-mails from people from around the world,” said Jeff Hancock, lead author on the Facebook study said during the session, several from regular people on Facebook who were angry that their feeds had been touched, and concerned that they’d missed important news from friends and family as a result. To him, the response revealed an aspect of the way people think about this service.

“We have a metaphor for the postal service: messages are delivered without tampering from one person to the next. We have a metaphor from the newsroom: editors choose things that we think will be of interest. But there’s no stable metaphor that people hold for what the news feed is.”

Amy Bruckman, professor at Georgia Tech who’s been studying online learning communities, brought up a particularly significant point when companies like Facebook and Twitter collect and study data:

Should companies be required to have something more like a real IRB? That’s a tough one. It has a lot of complications. Distinguishing social science research from how companies do their business and make their sites usable is almost impossible.

Gray, who is also affiliated with Indiana University, believes that ethical guidelines for working with human subjects should apply to researchers anywhere— whether at universities or corporate labs.

“I think the public reaction to the FB study sends a clear signal: company employees and university researchers must respect people’s data,” Gray told BetaBoston in an email. “The biggest challenge: figuring out how to effectively demonstrate that respect while continuing to advance science and good business practices.”

You can read the full transcript here.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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