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PNAS Editor Acknowledges Controversy of Facebook Study

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Since its June publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, Facebook’s Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks – a psychological experiment that manipulated the level of optimism or pessimism of users’ news feeds and measured subsequent Facebook activity – has received almost universally negative attention online. Although users technically give Facebook permission to conduct such experiments by agreeing to Terms of Use, many have criticized Facebook for the extent to which the social network manipulated its participants – without informing users or obtaining explicit consent.

Following the online outcry, the Editor-in-Chief at PNAS, Inder Verma, made public an “Editorial Expression of Concern” regarding the psychological experiment. Acknowledging the controversy surrounding the experiment, Mr. Verma writes, “Questions have been raised about the principles of informed consent and opportunity to opt out in connection with the research in this paper… the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out.” Experiments published in PNAS typically give participants the option of not participating in the experiment, but the Facebook experiment did not. “As a private company Facebook was under no obligation” to observe these standards, said Mr. Verma, and the editors at PNAS determined that publicizing the study was appropriate despite Facebook’s secrecy.

The report’s publication and its backlash provide a warning to online Americans. The largest digital companies likely know much more than many Americans would think – and following the reaction to this study, companies will likely be hesitant to make public the extent of their information.

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More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley writes on enterprise IT. He is a founder of Crucial Point and publisher of CTOvision.com

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