Hey folks in Facebook land: In case you missed this end of Saturday World Cup news drop from Slate.com, “Facebook’s Unethical Experiment,” on a recently published research study in PNAS. For the research article, see here. It raises serious issues about informed consent, which is in short agreement to participate in research studies.

For example, “People who viewed Facebook in English were qualified for selection into the experiment” and “LIWC was adapted to run on the Hadoop Map/Reduce system (11) and in the News Feed filtering system, such that no text was seen by the researchers. As such, it was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.”

Translation: If you use Facebook in English, you could have “participated” in this experimental study without your knowledge. The total number of reported participants was N=689,003, which the researchers themselves call “massive.” 

The problem is informed consent isn’t just a matter of what researchers see of OUR data. Informed consent also includes participants’ knowledge (i.e. a sample of people who use Facebook in English) that they are taking part in an experiment and the ability to opt out, as well as participants’ understanding the potential risks and benefits to them. Basically, taking part in a research study, massive or not, is and should still be in this age of social media, voluntary and with prior knowledge, understanding and individual agreement to participate. For more on the process and official definition of “informed consent,” you can refer to this page from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Informed consent has a long history, in response to really egregious abuses of individuals’ rights, as unknown “human subjects,” particularly in the area of medical research. Informed consent also applies to social science research, however, and having agreed to Facebook’s usage policy at some point in the past is seriously questionable as a means for informed consent. The study includes researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (chr@ucsf.edu, 415-502-1347) and Cornell University (ma354@cornell.edu, 607-255-6182), so I suggest contacting their Institutional Review Board (IRB) boards to find out more about how this research was vetted.