Research Ethics: Consent & Deception, are the lines black & white or shades of grey?

(Image via Valuewalk.com)

Facebook definitely got into some hot water over its Emotional Manipulation Study last year, that ultimately shun a light into a very dark tunnel on consent for research practices in social media. Not only that, but it dredged up questions and debate over consent & deception, and legal versus ethical. Which begs the question, is ethics simply black and white, ethical or unethical, or are there shades of grey?

Participation in any form of experimenting with humans must allow for consent, and an entitlement for the subject to terminate their involvement at any given moment. But what about when they don’t know they are being researched? How can they give their consent, or opt out when they are left in the dark?

After the reveal of Facebook’s Emotional Manipulation Study, where content was filtered, removed or added from a users Newsfeed to determine its effect on their mood, many began to question the legality over the study. Many argue the research was consistent and adhering to Facebook’s policies of use, and was over viewed by an independent research committee. Yet, there was no informed consent to any of the participants. The clause in regards to this project was only added to Facebook’s user policy four months after the experiment even happened.

They argued that, as a private company, Facebook did not need to conform to the guidelines of the Common Rule, as it the data was only used for discussions on how to offer a better experience for the users, and only dealt with the data not the people. But the data was from people, the method to obtain the data was by altering how humans would react to a more negative Newsfeed.

And this is where the lines blur even further. Because, ethics, is not certainly legality. Granted, the two often coincide, but ethics is a social construct to which we attribute moral principles. Legality is laws, breaking them and abiding by them. A rape victim who murders her attacker, is illegal but ethically and morally we find ourselves at a crossroads.

So where Facebook directly manipulated its users for research without their consent, but kept the data collected secure and abiding by their privacy statements, was not illegal but unethical. They broke no judicial laws but one can argue broke many social laws.

Where legal constructs are formed in black white, do it and get punished or don’t do it and no punishment, ethics cannot be corresponded to a simple black and white structure because of how we as humans perceive it. Definitions on what is ethical is moulded and altered based on societies beliefs and ideologies, and there can never be one clear definition.

Is Facebook blameless in their study? Emotional Manipulation could have had far more reaching repercussions than they may have realised. Obviously, if all you see is sad and morose Facebook statuses rather than happy kitten and rainbow stickers, you will be sad and morose too.  689,000 accounts were manipulated, and its estimated 45% of Australians suffer from some form of mental illness in their lives. On average, 1 in 6 people will suffer depression, so of the 689,003 people whose perceptions are being altered, 114,833 of them could have suffered depression- or been triggered by Facebook’s study.

What if one of these 114,833 people been pushed too far? Facebook may not be to blame, but it begs the question if they could have caused a significant event or been a factor in what these people could have done as a result of their experience. The tiniest alteration, one too many emotional manipulations on Facebook’s part, could have had massive impacts on their fragile states. Facebook showed almost no regard to the impact it could have had on these unwilling participants, simply by missing one easy step to ask for consent.



Jain, P. B. A. (2014) ‘This Is What Facebook Execs Are Saying About Emotion Manipulation Study.’ Available at: http://www.valuewalk.com/2014/07/facebook-execs-on-emotion-manipulation-study/ (Accessed: 10 April 2015).

Hunter, D. (2014) ‘Facebook puts ethics of research by private companies in spotlight.’ The Conversation. Available at: http://theconversation.com/facebook-puts-ethics-of-research-by-private-companies-in-spotlight-28798 (Accessed: 10 April 2015).


2 thoughts on “Research Ethics: Consent & Deception, are the lines black & white or shades of grey?

  1. Hey nice post! I like the image you started out on – really drives home what this study did unethically. I also like how you incorporated the Facebook case study throughout the entire blog post. I thought that it dragged on for a little too long. Maybe consider being more specific and get to your points more succinctly.

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