Facebook’s emotional experiments on users aren’t all bad

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[Commentary] Facebook scared some of its privacy-conscious users by revealing that it performed a scientific study on manipulating the emotional content of users' News Feeds.

Since the study came to light, the company has been accused of acting unethically -- even illegally -- by subjecting its users to an experiment without notice or consent. While the implications of the study are a little frightening, Facebook's study might actually have been a responsible thing to do. Some of the professors who did help with the study are with universities that are federally funded and subject to the Common Rule of the Institutional Review Board, which regulates how human subjects are used.

This makes the whole issue less clean-cut. Facebook did not have to publish the results the way it did, in a publicly available scientific journal.

Dr Nita Farahany, director of Duke University's master program in bioethics and science policy, points out that Facebook's experiment may not qualify as human subject research. "Facebook’s 'research' falls into a relatively new and under-theorized category of threats to individual autonomy," Farahany told Ars. "Advertisers attempt to manipulate human emotions through advertisements, A/B testing, subtle changes in wording all the time. And they attempt to measure the effects of those differences. Is this different?"

Facebook’s emotional experiments on users aren’t all bad